How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People




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www.skype.com

The site does quite a good job of giving you the instructions you'll need to download and install Skype on your system. Once you do this, you'll be guided through the process of setting up a Skype account. Skype allows you either to type messages or talk to other users of Skype if you have a microphone hooked up to your computer. With a microphone, you can even make calls to people on normal telephones. However, doing this will cost you money and you'll need to buy what is called "skype credit". Doing this is very simple. Keep in mind, however, that any minutes you purchase will only be available for use for the next 120 days. If you make no use of that time prior to this, any minutes you might have will be forfeit. You will be given a warning via email before this happens. As long as you're talking or text-chatting with other Skype users via the software, you never have to pay a cent.
When Skype opens, the first thing you'll find yourself on is a list of contacts. I'm assuming here that you have Skype fully open and not residing in your system tray. One of the first things you should do is to use the "skype test call centre" to make certain that your microphone volume is set so that you can be clearly heard when chatting. To call the test service, find the appropriate contact in the list and press the enter key on it. Follow the instructions you'll hear and then listen to see how you sound. You're pretty much all set after this has been done successfully. There are a vast number of options in the Pull down menus. You should also pay a visit to the "options" dialogue box which you can access under the "tools" menu. In that dialogue box, you'll find a number of tabs containing many things which may be of interest to you. Also take the time to look through each Pull down menu and get to know this very useful and popular software.
Skype has facilities to let you search for users or participate in public chats which anybody may start up and host. Regarding the facility to start up and participate in these public chats, finding ongoing public chats may not be easy. I can find no central point where currently running public chats are kept track of so you'll hopefully be made aware of any which interest you by the people who decide to host them. Finding people for private chatting is conversely very simple to do. A facility for searching through the users online and available for chat can be found right in the Skype software. I've staved off boredom by chatting with people in many different countries. You can even chat with more than one person at a time simultaneously so that it's like being in a room full of people who can all talk at once. A lot of material has already been created concerning using Skype while blind. Therefore, I see no need to re-invent the wheel here. If you're interested, one source of further help and information is at:

www.blind-geek-zone.net
You'll find that the more popular instant messengers work similarly to Skype in most respects. They'll use slightly different terms for things and have their options organized differently. However, once you've mastered one of these programs, getting a basic grasp on others won't be hard at all. They're an excellent way of keeping in touch with distant friends and relatives. Also, what better way of getting some technical help from a trusted computer-savvy acquaintance than by talking over an instant messenger client while both of you are at your computers? The only real dislike I have for them is that they present one more way that you're potentially always reachable by people. If you're not careful about setting boundaries, people can start expecting that you'll always be available. This happens to a certain extent already with email of course. People will freak out when they don't get an answer from you within the hour as if you should just always drop everything in order to pay attention to incoming calls or emails. The programs themselves are very easy to use. You'll quickly find out that the real trick is making certain that you integrate them in a reasonable manner into your life. I leave that entirely to your own skill and judgement and wish you the very best of luck.
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7.4-- Blogs and Forums
Web logs or "blogs" as they're commonly called are essentially journals which the owner decides to post on the Internet for a given audience to read. This audience might consist of the owner's friends and associates. More commonly, the audience consists of anybody who's connected to the Internet and interested in whatever the blog is about. At the owner's discretion, readers may post comments on whatever the owner has written as well as each other's comments. The blog's owner has the ability to remove comments he or she deems unsuitable. Some blogs such as my own are public diaries of the lives of their owners. Others are started in order to cover a field of interest such as technology. Seeking information on pretty much any topic using a search engine such as Google will no doubt direct you to one or more blogs. There are many sites which allow people to create blogs for free. Two of these where blind people have constructed blogs are:

www.livejournal.com

and

www.blogspot.com
Unfortunately for blind people, many blog sites rely on CAPTCHA technology to combat their vulnerability to spam. This requires users to enter a code printed in such a way as to be impossible for machines to read but possible for humans. While this may very well cut down on spam and junk entries posted to blogs, it effectively blocks blind people from making independent use of sites which choose to employ this method of defence. Some sites will have an audible alternative which can be used where the code is spoken in a distorted fashion which is still understandable. Novices might find it very hard to type in what they hear quickly enough. I'm about as much a veteran as one can be and I find it frustrating. However, I give the industry credit for at least making such a method available and hope that you're lucky enough to stumble onto sites which go to the trouble of providing it.
To write a blog is to truly wield and project the power of words. Make no mistake about it. Words posted on blogs have had very real consequences both for their owners as well as for those who have been written about in such spaces. Friendships have been destroyed, marriages ruined and businesses damaged by false information. Blogs have been used as evidence in court cases. Write with care lest your words come back to haunt you one day. It's all too easy to post entries in a blog while angry. I should know. Given the concerns I have about their abuse, I started my own blog at the toughest time possible. At the beginning of 2007, my marriage of five years came to an end. It was a decision mutually arrived at. Nevertheless, it still hit me like a ton of bricks. Momentous turning points in life like that unleash a whole lot of raw negative emotion. Before things had come to that point, I had no idea I could sink to such emotional depths. I was incredibly angry at everything from adverse circumstances to numerous people up to and including my wife and myself for being daft enough to think it could have ever worked in the first place. Add to that the most extreme lack of sleep I've ever experienced and you've got all the ingredients for regrettable words. It would have been the most natural imprudent thing in the world to lash out with the weapons I'm most skilled in using. Tranquility and a healthy perspective are now thankfully firmly in hand. I can look back with some pride and forward in full confidence that I haven't written in anger things which would have been unfair to others.
Writing a blog was probably the best kind of therapy I could have found. It forced me to truly face my darkest thoughts and take ownership of them. Did I really believe this or that enough to have it out there for anybody to read? I tend to gravitate toward positive thinking about life in general and people in mine. As a result, I've often started entries fairly negatively and written myself out of frustration into far more uplifted contentment.
While security and user login procedures will likely differ between blog writing sites, the basics of posting to a blog are both standard and simple. You need to be comfortable with filling out forms online because that is in essence what you'll do in order to post a blog entry. You don't necessarily need to fill out everything in order. For instance, you can write the actual entry before you choose a subject or title which will serve as a heading for and link to the entry. Blogs often have a combo box with a list of moods you can choose from. Other possible features might let you control who can read your blog and who is allowed to post comments to a given entry. I use a site especially set up for blind people to write blogs on. You can too. It's completely free and friendly to access technology. Check it out at:

www.blindspots.net

Here are a few more noteworthy blogs written by blind people. Visiting them will give you a feel for how blogs work in general and are an excellent entry point into the online blind community at large:
www.blindbargains.com
This site deals mainly with online shopping. Its owner keeps a lookout for bargains of special interest to blind people and alerts visitors to them. You'll also find other articles on the site which deal mainly with technology of particular use to blind people. A very interesting place to check out every couple of days or so.
www.therangerstation.blogspot.com
This blog is written by "some dude in the access technology industry" as he himself puts it. It mainly concerns his viewpoint on what's happening with such things as screen-readers, portable reading devices, and anything else he might happen to find noteworthy. I've always found his take on things to be very interesting and tend to keep a lookout for new entries he might post.
www.blindaccessjournal.com
This blog is written by a blind couple who discuss accessibility issues and how they deal with day to day life as far as accessibility goes. They are very passionate about being accessibility evangelists and have called much-needed attention to concerns with businesses as they have arisen. Keep tabs on this blog and you'll have a good idea of issues which may confront you as you venture out online.
www.blindconfidential.blogspot.com
This blog began focused on technology issues as related to blindness but has broadened dramatically in scope. It now deals with all manner of topics which are blindness related and nothing is too controversial. Fiction, essays and stories can all be found there as well as many in sites from the blog's owner. These personal glimpses into his life add an overarching dose of humanity to the proceedings.
Forums are run by sites wanting to provide a means for interested people to have ongoing discussions on given topics. Once people register and are approved by the forum moderator or owner, they can join in ongoing threads of discussion or start new threads which others may comment on. It's a lot like belonging to an email list. The quality of discussion depends upon the participants as well as how attentive the moderator or owner is to signs of trouble.
Keep in mind that it is absolutely impossible to have a lively ongoing discussion while being completely secure from troublemakers. Unless one or more people are put in charge of approval of every single posting, there's just no way. Parents and others responsible for children should take this into consideration before allowing children to sign up for forums. Steps such as banning offending members and deleting offensive messages can certainly be taken after the fact but there's no way to absolutely prevent such content which wouldn't also inhibit or drastically slow down conversation. Look for these forums on the sites of many accessible game developers and organizations. Another popular place for them is on social networking sites. Before directly contacting individuals, forums provide an excellent place where people can post their opinions and respond to those of others. Looking at various postings people have made can give a basic sense of their character. As with blogs, good skills in navigating web sites and filling in forms are what is required to make use of forums. In the technical aspects, these two forms of interactivity are very similar to each other. Typically, there are more limitations such as the length of what can be posted on forums. Conversation flow tends to be fairly rapid and transient.
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7.5-- Virtual Conventions and Symposiums
Ordinarily, I love hot weather. The heat wave we experienced in early June of 2005 was beyond even my liking though. There was no chance at all I would get any writing done. Computer games were similarly far too taxing to contemplate seriously. Despite having our fans on full blast, the apartment was very stuffy. I needed something to keep me stimulated without requiring too much brain power on my part. I also needed a large and extremely cold drink. Fortunately, both of these needs could be met. Taking up a very large ice tea, I began looking through recent emails for any announcements of online events I could go to. As splendid luck would have it, the Ocusource Expo was taking place during this extreme heat from June 8 through the 11. Everything was made to be very simple from the registration process to entering draws for giveaways to visiting booths of agencies and vendors to doing presentations. Especially considering this was a first-time event, it went incredibly smoothly.
All sorts of interesting and innovative people gave presentations. The keynote address was delivered by one of the pioneers of descriptive movies and television. An organization in the States which offered blind people training for careers in hospitality, a man who escaped the World Trade Centre on September 11 with the help of his guide dog and fellow workers, and many other people gave lectures and answered peoples' questions directly. Representatives from many key access technology companies were also participating. There were drawings for prizes each day which I could easily enter into via the web site. In the evenings, they had entertainment including Pat Boone, a famous singer. We not only heard him sing but also had a chance to ask questions and talk with him. I found it absolutely incredible that this technology could be used to stage such a powerful event bringing all sorts of people who helped to shape the lives of blind people across North America together. I was able to talk to numerous interesting people including both guests and convention staff. A highlight for me was talking with Steve Baum who was responsible for the development of Kurzweil1000 which is the reading software I use for making sense of printed documents.
I was also able to volunteer to make a presentation on accessible games. The staff quickly found a time slot for me and explained what I needed to know to act as a moderator. Using the Ocusource technology, I was able to take my audience directly to the various web sites I discussed in my speech. Rough and ready as my presentation was, it seems to have been generally well received. I can't imagine a more powerful means for getting information directly to interested people than what Ocusource had running there.
I've attended many other events since which have involved guest speakers, panels of experts, interviews and classes. Wile they've certainly all been very interesting and rewarding, nothing since has matched that first Ocusource Expo in sheer scope and majesty. The presentations from that event are still available to be listened to. While much of the information is now somewhat dated, you can learn much that is still useful and get a sense of what can happen when people decide to use accessible chat technology to its fullest potential. Go to:

www.letsgoexpo.com

and look at the past events section of the calendar. There, you'll find the Ocusource expo. The full schedule is what you'll want to go to. From there, just click on any link to an event and you should be able to hear it. Not nearly as thrilling as attending live was but nevertheless interesting.
Presently, there are two other places specially set up for this style of online event which I am aware of. These events take place in chat rooms and are typically open to everyone. There are also archives of past events and you may find other related material such as presentation notes. One of these places is:

www.accessibleworld.org

It is most widely known for its Tech Talk Training sessions where speakers discuss various technological and computer-related topics with anybody who wants to attend. This is an excellent and completely free resource and novices should definitely take advantage of it. Recently, I've attended a presentation on a new GPS navigation device called the Trekker Breeze. A representative from Humanware, the company responsible for producing this aid, gave a good sense of the device's capabilities and then answered questions from listeners after concluding his remarks. On another occasion, I had the distinct pleasure to spend an evening talking with Jim Kitchen. He is a true pioneer in accessible games and a most remarkable individual.
People should also look at:

http://www.opal-online.org

where all kinds of interesting presentations, classes, lectures and so forth take place. This site is fully accessible but isn't strictly for blind people. OPAL stands for online programming for all libraries and it lives up to that acronym. Everything from books to emerging mediums like blogs to technology and how it effects libraries is talked about. Keep an ear on upcoming events which may be of interest to blind people. I once attended a nice online workshop about writing one's memoirs. As I'm presently working on an autobiographical book, it was most useful. Having the ability both to talk to each other and type in any important information as text which appears in everyone's chat window makes these chat clients very suitable for running classes and presentations.
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8-- Online Shopping
I've never particularly liked shopping for its own sake. I have friends who'd cheerfully spend entire days in stores if the occasion presented itself. That would drive me right around the bend. There has to be a specific purpose or item I'm after to get me out there shopping. The advent of online shopping has certainly given marketers more of a fair crack at me these days. Getting there and back isn't an issue. You also don't have well-intentioned people trying to influence your buying decisions. You know what I'm talking about. The friends and family who might not mention that scrumptious candy because they're worried about your weight or the people who want to help you but are pressed for time. No such troubles come at us blind consumers who take the online route. We can explore every virtual aisle from end to end taking as much time as we need. We are, of course, still reliant on the people working on these shopping sites to write accurate and truthful descriptions of products and provide key information such as instructions for using them. To offset that, however, we have the Internet. People often write reviews of products as well as other information about them for others to read. Search engines are incredibly useful for finding all the positive and negative things about a product or shopping site. There have even been occasions where I've decided on impulse to purchase items while surfing the Internet.
When it comes to gift purchases, I am especially appreciative of the independence online shopping affords me. I can do my Christmas shopping without anybody else having a clue what I'm thinking of for them. I don't have to be a burden to already overworked and stressed people as I do my last-minute preparations. I can take as long as I like to go over product descriptions and search for other ideas for people. If an amazing idea for a present strikes me at five AM in the morning, I can pursue it right away. Just keep in mind that items may take a while to ship. Don't literally wait until the last minute or you'll not be able to play Santa terribly well. Also, don't pick the kind of gift whose very nature undoes all that nice secrecy.
My ex-wife loves expensive and special coffees. I found a fantastic place online with a terrific selection of flavoured coffee. Nearly everything went well. The site was fully accessible and I was able to pick and purchase precisely what I wanted without difficulty. The gift arrived in very timely fashion. However, you just take a crack at hiding the delicious smell of said coffee from your significant other in a one-bedroom apartment and see how far you get. She of course knew what she was getting long before I wanted her to despite my best efforts to the contrary.
Before you begin to take advantage of online stores, we'll just take a moment to go over some safety basics. Make certain that you are comfortable with using the Internet. You've got to be proficient at using things such as forms, combo boxes, radio buttons, and the like. I would go so far as to recommend that people interested in online shopping go to the next section where I discuss accessible computer games and become proficient playing some of the online games. I can't think of a better way to learn how to use all of the necessary web site elements without becoming bored to tears. If you have no stomach for games and decide just to try diving right in, you'll do fine as long as you're both careful and patient. There's no way you're going to accidentally buy anything and suddenly find boxes of stuff you didn't want arriving at your door. Until you provide the information, an online site will have no idea who you are or how to bill you. Just stick to the more well-known sites until you're more comfortable and experienced. Many of these have gone to the effort of making their sites more accessible to blind people. Online stores have different policies regarding returning items and may use different shipping methods. Before you make any purchases, make certain you're comfortable with these. Also, keep in mind that until you go to the checkout, you don't actually buy anything. Items are merely added to your shopping cart. You can always view your cart and edit its contents.
Having a credit card isn't an absolute necessity for online shopping but it certainly provides an easy and widely accepted method of payment. Other options include using a debit card which is becoming more widely accepted. PayPal provides a means of payment either directly from a bank account or through a credit card which doesn't require online merchants to learn your personal bank or credit numbers. Regardless of how you choose to pay for what you purchase, make certain you have a way of checking your bank and credit card balances as well as reviewing recent transactions without needing anybody's assistance to do so. It is very unlikely but conceivable that your banking or credit card information could be stolen by hackers. Keeping track of your personal balance will at least clue you in more quickly that this may have happened. You might also want to use a third-party payment service like PayPal. Most online stores accept it and only PayPal has to know about your credit card information this way. This adds an extra layer of security. PayPal along with most credit cards offer consumers protection against the possibility of credit card fraud. As long as you take proper precautions, you ought to have a good online shopping experience. While it's important to be aware of the danger, it is equally important to keep it in its proper perspective. PayPal or any major credit card offer their users protection from theft. Check on your balance regularly and have the information you need to quickly alert your chosen service should you suspect charges for things you didn't purchase. There's probably more of a chance you'll get robbed or have your bank information swiped while you're physically out shopping.
Most sites will let you browse and even add items to your shopping cart prior to registering with them. This lets you determine your comfort level with the mechanics of a particular online shopping destination before giving them any of your information. I've done extensive online shopping for over five years and never had my details misused in any way. However, there's no point in signing up for places you're not comfortable using. There should be plenty of information available to you on a site as well as reviews and comments posted to the Internet by users of a given online destination. I typically don't go overboard with the research. However, I don't often stray from well-established places unless I'm after things such as audiodramas or other products which are more off the beaten path. There are many items obtainable only online which are well worth taking the cybernetic equivalent of roads less travelled. A few very well known places to get started with are:
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How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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