How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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Personal Power:

How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

by Michael Feir

Copyright 2008 by Michael Feir

Special thanks to Sean Shaw, Geoff Eden, Richard Bowden, Richard Hadfield, Ron and Sylvia Schamerhorn. These good people took the time to review and make suggestions about improvements to the guide prior to its publication. They have caught numerous errors and given me a good many ideas for small but important improvements. Any remaining errors or shortcomings of this guide are my responsibility alone.
This document may be freely distributed in any format as long as the contents are not modified and the recipient user is not charged a fee. It is to be given and shared freely.
*Warning! By using this guide, you take full responsibility for any consequences resulting from the knowledge you gain from it. To make full use of your computer, for example, you'll need to know how to manage files. I am not responsible for what happens when that knowledge is misused to move files from their rightful place or to delete needed files. Power comes with responsibility and if you're going to have full control of your personal computer, you must accept that it falls upon you to use that power wisely. I take great pains in this guide to encourage people to think carefully about what they're doing and warn them when I discuss areas where they could potentially get into trouble. However, I cannot stop people from either ignoring my advice or misusing the knowledge this guide imparts. Knowledge is a tool. Like a hammer, it can be used both to build and to destroy.
I write this guide claiming no other professional expertise in this area except the nearly two decades of personal experience I've gained as a user of access technology. I represent no corporation and will not receive any money for this guide. It has been a labour of conscience and passion for the subject. I therefore accept no responsibility whatsoever for any damage done as a result of people getting in over their heads or acting with malice to harm another person's computer. You, the reader, must accept full responsibility for your own actions. If you can't do that, don't read any more of this guide.
Note: Now don't let this scare you. I'd divided the guide up into sections and subsections to make things easier for you. To assist with quick and easy navigation, the title of each section is preceded with two plus-signs in the line above it. Divisions within a particular section are preceded by a single plus-sign in the line above them. Using the search function of the software you use to read this guide, you can move quickly through the document by looking for the next or previous plus-signs. Lets take an example of how this works. Say you already have a computer which is hooked up to the Internet and you have a basic idea how to go places online already. I have a list of destinations I specifically picked out for less experienced blind folks to help make certain that their first experience online is both safe and encouraging. You can go to the "getting Online", section and look ahead for the single plus-sign. That gets you right to my list of destinations. And there you have it. A simple way of getting to the sections you want nice and speedy. Sighted users who print this guide for their reference should use a word processing program which can automatically add in page numbers. These numbers can break up the flow if the guide is being read via speech software. Braille formatting is completely different as well. These reasons prompted me to favour the guide's primary audience, blind owners of personal computers and not include page numbering.



1-- Introduction

2-- Clearing Up Windows for Blind People

2.1-- Rummaging in Dialogue Boxes

2.2-- Exercising Authority with Pull down Menus

2.3-- The Task bar and System Tray

2.4-- Built-in Help

2.5-- Navigating Files and Folders

2.6-- Surviving Software and System Crashes

2.7-- The Control Panel

3-- Getting Online

3.1-- Finding Your Way

3.2-- Initial Online Destinations

4-- Protecting Your Computer

5-- Maintaining Your computer and Data

6-- Taking It All In: Online Media:

6.1-- Listening To Music, Internet Radio and Video

6.2-- Pod casts

7-- Online Communities and Communication

7.1-- The Many Implications of Email

7.2-- Text and Voice Chat

7.3- Instant Messengers

7.4-- Blogs and Forums

7.5-- Virtual Conventions and Symposiums

8-- Online Shopping

9-- Computer Games

10-- Looking For Accessible Software

11-- Free Speech Access

12-- Final Reflections



Many people are in some way directly or indirectly responsible for inspiring me to write this guide. Far too many, in fact, to properly acknowledge all of them here. I'll therefore give credit where credit is due in the following manner:
First of all, I thank Dolores and Brian Feir, my parents. They've always stood by me and supported my various endeavours. In a world fixated on profit and earnings, they taught me that doing work which helps other people has its own rewards. I may not ultimately be able to earn a living but as long as I do my best to do things which benefit others, I'll look back on a rewarding life very well lived.
Consider this guide to be my small way of paying the debt of gratitude I owe to the many inspired teachers, friends and others who have shown me how to go beyond the basics and think outside of the box regarding computers and the Internet. My thanks to all of you who have taken the time to explain, commiserate, help me out of a mess often of my own making, and encourage me to do the same for others. Your patience, kindness and courage are all in these pages. Friends especially are quite often the best medium for transferring knowledge as they explore life and grow together. What initially look like disasters transform into triumphs where good will and positive thinking win through. May all of those new to the world of computers be fortunate enough to find and become friends such as I've found and tried to be.
I also write this guide in honour of the Blind Explorers of Access Technology team. These terrific people were all set to plunge into the fray and do some serious good if only circumstances had been more favourable. Wherever fate has tossed you, I hope your compassion for others and willingness to try has been properly rewarded. This written document is in a very real sense a legacy of all our dashed hopes. May it spread far and wide doing at least some of what we wanted to accomplish in person.
Finally, I would like to dedicate this guide to the Lake Joseph Centre and all who work and rest therein. This very special lodge was built and is supported by the CNIB and Lions Club. Both organizations saw the need for a place designed for blind people to be able to independently enjoy vacations and other character-building experiences. I've spent many pleasant weeks there since childhood and plan on spending many more. Every time I go there, I'm able to enjoy relaxation as well as find people who I can help in some way. For me, that's a truly restorative combination. It also provides an excellent place to sound out a good cross-section of the blind community discovering what we're all about and what needs remain unfulfilled. It was here that I received the idea and an often repeated request to write a guide for beginners. I hope that what I've written here meets all of your needs.

1-- Introduction:

"I didn't know I could search the Internet!" "But I'm totally blind! There aren't games that I could play, are there?" "I thought I couldn't use any of that online chat software!" "You can actually get your groceries online?" Words like these, usually delivered in tones of amazed wonder, have haunted me for years. I hear them all too often from blind people who have been given or otherwise obtained accessible computers for their personal use. If you're sighted, it's all but impossible to be ignorant of the countless possibilities computers offer in terms of personal pleasure and growth. Mainstream media is filled with depictions of people using them for playing games, chatting online, searching the Internet, etc. The computer games industry has been with us for well over two decades. Not knowing about their availability would be very hard indeed. People who have lived through the past twenty years have grown up having the world of computers sold to them as an exciting place where plenty of opportunities for both work and pleasure were to be had. Sadly, blind people don't always share this experience. They are often left afraid to venture beyond what they have been shown how to do. Training is typically geared towards education or employment. Any personal leisure or other exploration is up to individuals. They are stuck with questions like:

"What activities are accessible?" "Might I screw up my computer by trying something different?" "Who can I turn to for help if I need it without having to pay a fortune?"

Many blind people are largely under the impression that computers are good for education and work only. Given the current extremely high unemployment rates experienced by the blind community, the magnitude of needlessly untapped potential caused by this mistaken belief staggers me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Essentially, computers and the Internet have given me a way of reaching out and having a positive impact on people. These tools plus my talents and effort have given me direction, enjoyment, purpose and meaning. If you're willing to invest the time it takes to become a competent user, these tools can help you in similar ways. Your computer is so much more than a mere tool for getting work done. It can deepen your personal life in countless ways. I'll show you how. Come with me on a journey of discovery into your computer's potential and that of the digital world.
This isn't a crash course or cram session. I hope you find my more leisurely approach helps ease any feelings of being overwhelmed by technology. I've filled this guide with my own personal experiences so that people who are new to computers and the Internet might better understand how these things can become a part of their own personal lives. It's much more a tourist book than a manual. You already have access to manuals. The problem with them is that they can be quite daunting to people particularly when they lack any personally appealing reason to make use of them. I've written this document to serve as your bridge of humanity to help you cross the digital divide. Reading it should provide you with a good basic overview of some new possibilities your personal computer can open up to you. You'll have a better foundation to know which sections of manuals might interest you and it won't be like jumping off a cliff into the completely unknown. Relax and enjoy the trip.
You don't have to read this entire guide from end to end or learn a ton of information over three or four tortuous training sessions. There's no clock to beat nor money to pay. Take as long as you like to learn what you choose to from this guide. We're all coming at this with different desires and different awareness of what's out there. While novices who read this guide will hopefully gain a good overall basic knowledge, others with more experience may find new pursuits they never thought of. Even veterans of the digital world will hopefully discover new sites to visit among the countless links I've included in Personal Power. I'm not expecting everyone who reads these pages to become the ultimate power-user. I just feel strongly compelled to make the road to computer competence easier for you than it was for me. What your personal interests are doesn't concern me. That you have a basic understanding and ability to use computers to pursue those interests does. I want more people to be aware of what their computers can do for them personally. If you choose not to use that knowledge, that's perfectly fine. However, to make an informed choice, that knowledge has to be available to you in the first place. Currently, given understandable but misguided societal priorities, I don't believe this is the case for many blind people. I hope to give you a proper sense of why you would truly want to take time to master your accessible computer and the Internet. That's my main goal with this guide; To make you aware of what's out there for you so you can decide what's worth reaching for.
Computers and the Internet are profoundly powerful tools. Even people who use them extensively like me can't possibly use their absolute full potential. There are aspects that simply don't interest me. That's true of everyone. There are, however, basic things which owners of computers ought to be aware that they can do and things which they ought to know how to do. I believe that every owner of a personal computer should at the very least know how to:

1. Protect their computer from attack if they have any thoughts at all of using the Internet.

2. Move, copy, and organize files.

3. Perform basic maintenance on their computers such as defragmenting their hard drives and doing a disc cleanup.

4. Recover from a system crash without assistance or needless panic.

5. Have a good general grasp of what their computer can do for them and what software they can use or obtain if they wish.

Sadly, there seem to be a great many people both blind and sighted who lack this knowledge. If you intend to make good use of your personal computer, you definitely need to have it. For users of the Microsoft Windows operating systems, I'll be going over those basics in my guide. Users of other operating systems will, I hope, at least know what knowledge they need to obtain from whoever provides the access alternative they've chosen.
Two years is quite a long time to work on something which I firmly believe must be given away freely to anyone interested if it is to have any impact at all on my target audience. Some of you out there will naturally wonder what I stand to gain from this. First and foremost, the clear conscience which comes of doing what is right. My life and circumstances place me in an ideal position to undertake this project. When one has a clear opportunity to effect good, it behooves us to take action. One way or another, we must all pay our dues in this world and keep the books of conscience balanced. Over the years, I've derived a great deal of enjoyment from labours of love given freely away by many other people. Also, I couldn't count the times that helpful and knowledgeable people have gone the extra mile for me when I needed help. There are those who think that people don't appreciate what they don't have to pay for. I've learned the error of that short-sightedness first hand. Despite extensive commercialization of the Internet over the past decade, a communal spirit of sharing still remains strong online. It is a joy to contribute my time and effort to bringing more people into that fold. I hope for a day when many more blind people will stand up and be counted online by writing blogs, participating in discussions, and initiating or contributing to larger collaborative efforts. As this happens, I believe it will help us achieve more in the offline world. It will also enhance the enjoyment I already get from being connected. Finally, I also hope that it will stand me in good stead as I embark on further projects which I hope to sell. These aren't strictly going to be for blind people's enjoyment only but they will be made in a manner fully accessible to them. There you are. My innate greed has been revealed in all its many lovely shades.
Before we get too far, I would strongly recommend you read sections 4 and 5 on protecting and maintaining your computer. The online world is open to everyone and this unfortunately includes criminals. There are also the digital equivalent of monsters lurking within this new realm of human endeavour. I'm completely serious about that. Viruses, worms, Trojans and spyware are no laughing matter. While I can warn you of the dangers, I can't protect you from them as much as I'd like to. The best I can do is direct you to defences you can use to protect yourselves. Even if you can't afford to pay for a commercial security package, there are steps you would be irresponsible not to take. If you go on to the Internet for any length of time without taking precautions, don't say I didn't warn you. For people whose training didn't leave them with a very good grasp of the basics of the Windows operating system, the next section will explain the desktop, start menu, and other fundamental elements. I don't intend to reinvent the wheel here. These very basic concepts are explained quite well in plenty of training material typically given with access technology. I just intend to give that little extra nudge to people who either don't know how to access these materials or just didn't have the motivation to bother using them.
Here are some of the other areas this guide will explore: Computer games have advanced tremendously since the early days of access technology. People can play car-racing games, arcade games like Pac-man, strategy and adventure games which are self-voicing and use sound rather than text to convey similar experiences to what sighted people can enjoy. I'll have a more in-depth section about the kinds available later in this guide.
Online shopping can be a very liberating addition to a blind person's life. It offers a degree of independence that can be very difficult to achieve otherwise. While shopping online, you are completely in charge of the experience. You can take as long as you like looking at item descriptions. Section 8 discusses the advantages of online shopping as well as doing it safely.
Here's another simple example. I like listening to music while I write. There are literally thousands of Internet radio stations broadcasting pretty much any style of music you could want. Mostly, they are free to listen to and there are very few if any commercials. All the software you need to tune in is completely free. A little time, patience and minimal effort are all you'll have to expend in order to enjoy your kinds of music while your at or near your computer. There are also video streams and podcasts of potential interest to blind people. Section 6 dives into the vast amount of online media and offers basic instructions you'll need to access it.
The most common eventual cure for the new computer user's shortage of knowledge and perspective is when they come into contact with the wider community of more experienced users. There are quite a lot of us out there who can and often will take the time to enlighten people about what we've either discovered or learned from others. This, in most cases, requires that novices have the courage and curiosity to go beyond their training at least enough to become proficient in using the Internet. The Internet is a fantastic bridge-builder and is your gateway to the shared collective outside-the-box experience of the world's blind community. Borders just don't matter anymore. You can talk for hours to somebody on the far side of the world without spending a cent on long-distance charges. A major section of this guide looks at various methods of communicating online such as email.
For people on a very tight budget, there are now a few different free screen reading programs available on the Internet. These are still very much in development and people shouldn't expect free screen readers to perform to the same standards as their expensive commercial counterparts. However, that being said, they are constantly being improved upon and all offer full access to basic computer activities and areas. Section 11 of this guide discusses free screen readers and their implications.
I hope this gives you an idea of the kinds of possibilities made available via accessible computers and the Internet. You don't need to add more hardware to the kinds of computers that are being funded in order to go on the Internet, listen to music or other streaming broadcasts, play games, shop, etc. You just need to know how to use what you've got already. Good skills with typing and knowing your keyboard are two areas which I can't recommend strongly enough that you work on. There are certainly typing courses and the like, but there are far more engaging and fun ways of attaining typing and keyboarding skills.
It is impossible for me to personally reach all the people who should be made more aware of the power at their command. I therefore ask you to extend my reach. Please feel free to give this guide to people who you think could benefit from reading it. The more people this guide empowers to pursue their own interests with their accessible personal computers, the greater the reward will be for my efforts. If you have the facilities to translate this guide into alternative formats like Braille or audio narration, you have my permission and deepest thanks for doing this. I ask only that you do not modify what I've said. As more blind people venture online and contribute to the vibrancy of that virtual world, they will spread the knowledge to others. Time and personal circumstances permitting, I'm always eager to hear from and help people where I can. Contact me via email at:


2-- Clearing Up Windows for Blind People

"Come on! Do I really have to plough through that extensive training material I got with my access technology?" Well I can't exactly hold a gun to your head and make you but you really ought to give that training material a look. It's written by very thoughtful experts in both the technology you have and in teaching you how to make the best use of it. They do a very good job of going over the basic concepts and are paid to be far more patient than I am. Many of you find the prospect of ploughing through such material to be more daunting than it actually is. What I hope to do in this section is not to recreate that already finely crafted wheel. Instead, I aim to give you that glimmer of understanding, that boost of confidence which will let you make your own more informed choice. Nobody can stop you from just deciding not to proceed any further. To simply give up and not look at the material provided you or the rest of this guide is the first option. I of course hope you don't choose it. If you're determined just to plunge in without benefiting from the aid of manuals and such, perhaps this brief overview of the elements of Windows will be enough of a push to get you started. You'll then be on the path I've chosen to tread over the years. I should warn you that this path is full of frustrations which could have been avoided by taking the time initially to get an overarching grasp on the fundamentals using the provided training materials. I hope you end up using this guide and the help provided to smooth your way.
One excellent source of more traditional and professional training is:

CathyAnne provides excellent online training and resources. She offers a free course on Windows XP fundamentals which has been pre-recorded. Just click on the links to hear the various parts. You can also participate in live online training programs which come with textbooks and other support. The Access Technology Institute has become a widely recognized authority in providing training to interested users as well as certified access technology trainers. You'll find in-depth courses on everything from Microsoft Windows to designing a web site. For people who are self-motivated and wanting a method of learning at their own pace, it's definitely the place to go for the kind of thorough training owners of personal computers ought to have. I'm just giving you enough of an understanding of Windows to get you started in this section. I'm far more interested in moving people beyond the basics and illustrating what you can do once you've gained a level of competence with your access technology. CathyAnne offers the kind of deep coverage of things such as the Microsoft Windows operating system which I slowly pieced together over years of informal experimentation. With her materials, it'll take you far less time.

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How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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