How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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Choosing the right keywords while using search engines like Google to look for freeware or low-cost shareware can make all the difference. Think carefully about what you hope to find. Separate keywords with commas and a space. For example, you might search for"

blind, music player, software, free

if you were interested in alternative free software to use to play digital music such as mp3 files. In an ideal world, you would find software which is known to be accessible to blind people using access technology. As we make our presence known to authors of software online, we should see that kind of thing happen more often. However, in many cases, you'll have to just look for what you're after without specifying accessibility. For example, you might try:

free, word processor, simple

This would possibly result in you finding programs like Jarte.
Sometimes, you'll discover programs which are very close to being accessible or which you feel could be made accessible. If this happens, try contacting the author of the software with your thoughts. My experience with this has been quite good. I have actually had a lot of success in getting them to make changes to improve accessibility. Once these authors are aware of interest in their work from blind people, they are usually eager to make their software more accessible. The search queries I've offered as examples here are of the most basic kind. Search engines like Google are very powerful and have many advanced options and ways of telling them what you are and are not looking for. You'll find plenty of help and information about how to make the best use of search engines right on their sites.
While it's a shame that so much software is rendered inaccessible to us due to aesthetics, it is even more of a shame that perfectly useable software goes unknown about by blind people for never having been tried. I hope that the examples of my own success in this area given above will inspire more blind people to invest some time in searching for freeware or shareware relevant to their personal interests. There are doubtless many more discoveries to be made and shared. If you strike gold in your explorations, be certain that you spread the word. Money is very tight for many blind people and knowing about free or low-cost alternatives can make a tremendous difference. There is no central clearing house for this kind of thing. However, in the section called "Getting Online", I provided a number of links to some of the more popular sites set up for blind people. Another place to give and receive information about new software finds is at:

This pod cast is quite well known and is there for people to share all kinds of their experiences via audio recordings. If you're not up to doing those, you may want to look at:

There, you'll find a resource called "top tech tidbits". This is a newsletter posted online and emailed to interested people. They welcome information about accessible software to be passed along in upcoming issues published weekly.

11-- Free Speech Access
There are many instances where it could be very helpful to have access to free screen readers. Some people simply can't afford the numerous commercially available alternatives. Perhaps, you'll need to access the Internet or use somebody else's computer and can't make use of your regular speech access. You may want to get your feet wet in this whole digital ocean without spending the big bucks first and not like the idea of using one of the demonstration copies of commercial software. These tend to run for a fixed amount of time and then stop working until you reset your computer for another period of time to be made available. This is a fairly common practise as it allows people to get a sense of what the full product can do for them without essentially giving them that full product. Totally free screen readers don't put you in such an uncomfortable position. You can take as long as you like and don't have to worry that your computer will suddenly stop talking due to an arbitrary timer.
For those of us fortunate enough to have commercial speech software at our command, consider this. Even the best software will occasionally lock up or stop speaking for no apparent reason. When that happens, it's very nice indeed to be able to call up one of the free screen readers for a bit of emergency duty. There are also occasions when you may need to access a different computer. Often, commercial packages will naturally be protected by security which deters people from installing it on more than a couple of computers. There are no such restrictions when you're using the free screen-reading alternatives. The only major drawbacks are software quality and not having access to as rapid technical support if you need it. All of the producers of the free screen readers are eager for feedback. However, they may have very different priorities and your particular issue may not be deemed very urgent in the grand scheme of things.
For Windows users, three current initiatives to produce free speech access to computers have attracted a fairly high level of attention. These are named Thunder, NVDA, and System Access To Go. Each of them approaches things a little differently. All of them are produced by conscientious people who want to try to erase the digital divide faced by less fortunate members of the blind community. For all three projects, there is enough work already done to make them useful but a lot of development still ongoing. If you make use of one or more of them, keep watch on their respective web sites for any updates which might come along at any time.
Let's start with Thunder. It was the first of these projects to attract my attention. The group producing Thunder have the overall goal of bringing basic access to word processing, the Internet and the Windows operating system. They don't claim that it will work well with all programs. How versatile Thunder eventually becomes depends on the funding they receive and what the community of users does with it. Thunder is open-source software. It comes bundled with companion software which lets you use the Internet, listen to Pod casts, tune into radio stations broadcasting over the Internet, and other things. A lot of help files have been made available for it and Thunder's manual is a very easy read. One excellent feature Thunder has is a system that constantly watches for errors which would stop speech output. When one happens, Thunder will likely correct the problem given a moment's patience and be back talking again without the user having to do anything. Overall, I believe Thunder would make a good place to start in order to begin to gain familiarity with computers. Over time, I would expect the limitations of Thunder to begin to confine people who want to go much beyond the basics. You can obtain Thunder free of charge at:

NVDA, which stands for "Non-visual Desktop Access", is an attempt to produce a full free open-source screen reader. This attempt is off to an absolutely splendid start. In general, NVDA does at least an adequate job of accessing most things. There are certainly still issues, bugs and problems to work out. NVDA will also work with Internet Explorer and Firefox. Unlike Thunder, you won't have to use a more specialized web browser. While Thunder is kept intentionally extremely simplified, NVDA offers a great deal more flex ability for people whose personal interests might require it. Novices should find NVDA another very good starting option which will provide somewhat more room to expand than Thunder. The learning curve is just a little steeper. You can obtain NVDA by going to:
The third option has appeared on the scene most recently but has paradoxically been in development the longest. It's actually a variant of a commercial screen reader called System Access developed by a corporation called Serotek. This corporation's overall slant leans far more towards personal use and enjoyment of accessible computers than other major access technology companies. They have a lot to offer even users of other screen readers. Check them out at:

Recently, Serotek created a non-profit foundation called AIR, Accessibility Is a Right. This foundation makes Serotek's System Access To Go screen reader available free of charge to anyone with a stable Internet connection. It is by far the best free screen reader currently available in terms of robust features and ease of use. Extensive help is available. Any settings people prefer can be saved on a server which is constantly connected to the Internet. You can go to any computer with Internet access, be talked through starting up the screen reader and then use your account and pin numbers to have your preferences go into effect on that computer. System access to go will work with both the Internet and with applications running on the local computer you're on.
Whatever you do though, don't close the window of the browser you used to start the speech. Believe me. It's quite easy to do by accident while trying to close other applications or windows you want to get rid of. Leave that browser window used to launch the screen reader open no matter what. You see, there's a heck of a catch to this free ride. If that browser is closed or if the connection to the Internet is lost even for an instant, so is your speech access. You will be told that System Access is shutting down and those will be the last words you hear. To restore speech access, you'll have to go to the web site and reactivate System Access To Go before continuing whatever you were doing before suddenly losing speech. That can be most annoying while you're in the middle of doing stuff. This is my only concern with recommending System Access to Go for novices. They may not be able to open and use a web browser unassisted for the first while. One approach to this is to obtain another free screen reader and have it ready to be easily activated. Either memorize how to get to the icon which launches that screen reader or make a shortcut to it with a hotkey which you can enter. For instance, I've got NVDA installed on my system so that hitting the control alt n key combination activates it when I need speech and Jaws has conked out on me. To use System Access to Go, go to:

You will be given all the instructions you need when you go there as long as you're running a computer with sound capability and the volume is at a reasonable level. After you close down speech or it is shut down due to a poor Internet connection, no trace of the software will be left on the computer. You'll have to go to the site again to get it all up and running the next time you need it. Another possible benefit for some people will be the free screen magnification capabilities built into the software.
For souls far braver than I, there are the Linux and Apple Mac options. I've had absolutely no experience with these. However, I will direct you to where you can learn more about these choices. To learn about Voiceover, the screen reader built right into Apple's Tiger and Leopard operating systems, go to:
Linux has also gained some popularity among blind users. There are a growing number of accessible programs which can be used. One tremendous advantage is in affordability. Linux itself is absolutely free as are the screen readers which are available for it. Due to the number of different speech access alternatives for Linux, I will simply recommend that you make use of a search engine on the Internet. Type in something like "Linux, blind users", or "Linux, screen reader", and you'll find useful information in very short order. One alternative growing in popularity is called Orca. You can check it out at:

12-- Personal Reflections:
Congratulations, reader. Assuming you've read through the guide to this point, you've learned all it can teach you about computers and the online world. Take some time to think about all you've learned and what you might want to achieve with that knowledge. All that remains is to reflect on the road we've travelled together. I eagerly await hearing about or interacting with the results of your own online journeys to come. Meanwhile, for the curious, here are my own reflections at the end of this journey:
Two years ago, I sat eating at a table in the dining hall of the Lake Joseph Centre where I was on vacation. I had struck gold that evening both with the food served as well as the company with whom I enjoyed it. I casually mentioned that I often listened to the radio dramas presented by the BBC which they made available for anyone to hear online. An older lady originally from Britain was astonished to learn how simple it would be for her to do that. She had missed hearing a show called The Archers. The BBC makes an astonishing amount of excellent documentaries, comedies, news and more available freely to everyone. My ex wife and I had discovered this at some point by sheer accident while bored one day. I gave a few more examples of the audio entertainment and mind-expanding stuff I had found over the years. That morning, I had tuned into NASA TV online to catch live coverage of the space shuttle landing. I had also just downloaded a new and apparently free screen reader called Thunder which I had yet to experiment with very much. Accessible games, online shopping, and other topics I've touched on in this guide also came up that night as we ate.
Things were drawing to a close when somebody suggested that I would do the blind community a great service if I would help make other blind people aware of these opportunities by writing down my personal online journey. The rest of the table agreed. Before the week was done, over twenty other people had put in their specific requests for this project. That's how this journey started. It's been a very rewarding process for me. In an effort to share what wisdom I had found, I learned quite a few new things. Additionally, I've found some very interesting new friends and had many stimulating conversations along the way. Having this guide's completion as a goal to strive for kept me anchored when the rest of my life went through drastic rather painful change.
Halfway through writing the guide, I returned to Lake Joseph with what I had done so far and let some visitors there hear parts of it. They liked what they heard but wanted more basic information to be included. I had wrongly assumed that people would have been taught the basics of Windows or would know how to find out what they didn't know. For many of the people I met that year, the rest of my work would be utterly useless to them since what training they had received was too overwhelming for them to absorb. They had no idea what the start menu was or the desktop. I was somewhat horrified at that and set out to include enough of this basic information to get people going. You have to be able to find your way around the box in order to start thinking outside of it.
How to give people the information needed while still honouring my original goal of bringing a level of personal interest and liveliness to the experience has proved quite a challenge for me. A document simply can't replace having living friends who can share the learning experience with you. However, I hope that I've at least given you the motivation and means to help find those friends. Immediate personal motivation is what I feel the blind community has truly lacked when it comes to using accessible computers. The current generation of sighted adults grew up with computers being their buddies. They learned a whole lot about the technology they work with today by simply having fun with it. For them, it wasn't about learning how to work with computers. That was simply incidental. Just like I learned how to type around 90 words per minute by playing text adventures, they grew comfortable with technology in a similarly more playful way. When we're having fun and personally interested in something, our passion will carry us farther than the best instructions or teaching will. It's that simple. If my guide has made you think: "Wow! I could have a lot of fun with this stuff!", then I've succeeded in my quest.
There is so much room out there for us to participate and contribute. All of the jargon and techno speak can be a bit hard to absorb at first. However, once you're moving in the traffic on the information superhighway, I suspect you might well be amazed how ultimately human that online world is. We're not all a bunch of ultrageeks and technical wizards. Quite the opposite in fact. You'll find everyone from students to retirees, gamers to gardeners, concerned parents to techno-savvy businessmen on the Internet. They're all in pursuit of goals as old as time itself. Information, romance, stimulating conversation, amusement, understanding, money, fame... All of these are available with the right knowledge, time, resources and effort. The Internet gives us all a place where we can speak and be heard. That, I believe, is its greatest gift to blind people the world over. If I've managed to convince even a small number of you to step up and make your presence known online, then I've accomplished what I've set out to do.
It isn't all pretty. The Internet certainly has its dark side. Criminals have quickly moved into this territory as well. That's why I took such pains to illustrate what can happen if people don't take precautions while online. There's another side to this too. Unlike the physical world, there are no hard and fast barriers preventing blind people from engaging in criminal activity. They aren't placed at such an extreme disadvantage as they would be in a world where everyone else can see what they are doing. Sometimes, I can't help thinking that it won't be too long at all before I hear some news story about a frustrated blind person who decides to commit a major Internet crime. The overall societal conditions are certainly present for that to happen. There are an awful lot of us with plenty of time and talent on our hands who find it impossible to obtain honest work despite sincere sustained effort. While I was growing up, everyone was very optimistic that this new accessible information age we were advancing into would be a great equalizer for blind people. Sadly, I think we've ultimately been somewhat disillusioned of that. Technology in and of itself is just a tool. Overall attitudes about blind people need to change drastically in western society before we'll see a meaningful reduction in unemployment. Also, as that happens, the attitudes of us blind people must also change becoming more open to new possibilities offered. It's a very large chicken and egg problem which I believe will take a long time to solve. Adding to it is the total lack of job security out there for anybody whether they're blind or sighted.
What Internet access does for us is to open up a sphere where we can more easily present ourselves and participate. It also lets blind people across the planet talk directly to each other as well as sighted people breaking down the isolation many of us experience. The younger generation of blind people will, I think, not experience the same profound lack of awareness of the exciting possibilities technology offers us which my generation and the one preceding it has. They'll know about the forums for discussion, sources of information, accessible games, free software, etc. Their friends and family will be more apt to bring them early into the digital age. If I were to go forward in time twenty years, I don't believe I would experience the same lack of knowledge which prompted me to write this guide. It's a temporary problem whose solution I hope I've managed to help speed up much as others have helped me. In time, we'll reach a point where our online presence will start to make a much larger difference to our offline prospects. People will come face to face with who we are and what we're capable of on their and our own terms. They'll know us for the individual people we are rather than thinking of us collectively as "blind people". It'll take time and effort but ultimately, we'll get there.

When I'm given a gift, I naturally have an urge to enjoy it as much as I can. At the same time, I have a strong compulsion to share that gift with others. Encountering so many people who couldn't do what I've been able to over the years made me profoundly aware of just how fortunate a man I am in so many ways. My life is full of many wonderful friends and a very supportive family. I felt absolutely compelled to do something that would give people a fighting chance to find some of the life satisfaction I had achieved and largely taken for granted. At last, I believe I've done this to the best of my ability. I've found the redemption I hoped to find through this project and can now explore other things without a sense that I've neglected my duty.
Basically, I see this guide as a finished thing. I have no inclination or plans to produce an improved version some time in the future. I've done what my conscience and sense of fairness has compelled me to do in this area. There are other creative frontiers which beckon me onward. Should anybody want me to personally attend or speak to groups of people about topics I've covered in this guide, I would be happy to do so either online or off as long as transportation and scheduling arrangements can be made. I've had some opportunities in the past to do this sort of thing and have been well received so far. While I've worked on this guide, I've put other projects on the slow burner. I plan to spend the Summer months of 2008 recharging my creative engine and doing what I can to spread the guide as widely as possible. I'll also keep myself available for any opportunities which having published this guide might present me with. In my experience, attempting to do good tends to present one with interesting and rewarding opportunities to do still more. God seems to work like that. Assuming nothing sweeps me into it by the Autumn, I'll move on to a very different, ambitious and creative project whose planning is already well underway.
All of us have knowledge, creativity, enthusiasm and talent we can share. In a very real sense, that has become my vocation in life. Following that calling has taken me to some interesting experiences and places. Over and above the possibilities and the knowledge I've shared here, I hope to have given you a sense of why it matters that we step forward and be a positive part of the information age even if that doesn't lead to material reward. If more of us do this, I believe it will greatly speed up that change of attitudes we need to see in overall society. The online world is so much a part of conversation these days. People turn to Google or some other online resource to find out about all sorts of things. Searching for games accessible to blind people will certainly bring you to the magazine I started as well as other things I've written in the past. Because I thought to put a profile about me online and enter the social networking scene, I'm not in the social limbo I felt plunged into when my marriage ended. A very special woman read that profile and liked it enough to add it to her favourites list. I was alerted to that and the rest has been very happy history. What knowledge might you have to offer the online world? You never know what your efforts could eventually lead to once you've engaged with it. I'm not saying you'll always strike gold or that everything will be roses and light. It certainly hasn't been for me. Ultimately, what I'm trying to say is that the online world is a place very much worth taking the time to engage with. Best of luck to all my readers. Perhaps, I'll hear from some of you eventually. I'd like that very much. Thank you for your time and attention.
Michael Feir

Mississauga, Ontario, Canada

Spring, 2008
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How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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