How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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Well, folks, that's a quick overview of the techniques and tools I'm familiar with for dealing with crashes and recovering from those miscalculated moves we all make from time to time. I've prepared you as well as a guide like this can. People who use other operating systems should be certain they find out about similar facilities available to them. When things go wrong, you now have the knowledge to hopefully avoid getting into trouble you can't get out of. If you remember nothing else, remember to play it cool and don't let emotion carry the day.


2.7-- The Control Panel

When it comes to teaching new people how to use their personal computers, many trainers take a very conservative approach and don't teach people about things which might let them mess up their computers if their clients act irresponsibly. I've therefore met people who have been left unable to install new software or make any major changes to their own machines because they weren't set up as the owners of their computers. Instead, they had been given low-level user identities. In effect, they were left hostage to another person's judgement that they couldn't make responsible decisions about what to change or install. This might also occur when parents or whole families are sharing a single computer. On the whole, I take the position that the owner of the computer should have full control over it. However, I've met people who even I would hesitate to teach certain things to. Due to being very young, mentally challenged or for other reasons, they are very likely to get themselves into trouble no matter how conscientious the teacher might be.
To make full use of the Windows control panel, you'll need to be logged in as the owner of the computer you're using. If somebody else is already in that position, you'll have to convince him or her that you are indeed responsible enough to use the powers granted to system owners or administrators wisely. Unless you have a clear idea of what you're doing, don't mess around. The Windows control panel is where you can make changes to how your system behaves, how resources such as memory are used, and much more. It is certainly possible to make changes which could render your computer inoperative without expert sighted assistance. Users of access technology should be particularly careful making changes to display settings among other things. In my experimentation, I have sometimes made such changes and then been unable to read the screen properly with Jaws for Windows. The system restore utility has been my salvation countless times. Before you make any extensive changes in the control panel at all on your own, I strongly recommend that you become familiar and comfortable with using this extremely valuable utility. I discuss it in some detail at the end of the preceding subsection which deals with surviving system and software crashes.
The control panel presents itself as a folder. While you can use the view menu to alter how the items in that folder are displayed, you cannot do other things like move, delete or copy the items. Press the enter key to select an option. Each option will take you to a dialogue box which lets you control a certain aspect of your system. In these dialogue boxes, after you have made any changes, use the "apply" button which you'll find past the "ok" and "cancel" buttons to make your changes permanent. After you hit the "apply" button, you should then hit the "ok" button. To cancel any changes you have second thoughts about, hit the "cancel" button.
There are a great many options in the control panel. The exact number depends somewhat on the hardware and software installed. I have thirty-four entries in my control panel. Needless to say, I'm not going to take you through each one here. Instead, I will point out some of the options likely to be useful for novices. I will also take a moment to warn you not to go into either the display settings or the system options unless you're following clear instructions or have a very good idea what needs to be changed. This is particularly the case with the advanced options in the system dialogue. You could render your computer unable to start at all by messing with options in there. It gives you access to how memory is used, controls to various hardware including your hard drive, and other key system areas. As long as you don't change anything and always use the "cancel" button to exit that dialogue, you are safe looking around. I always encourage this as you ought to know what your options are and where they are. However, it is definitely an area where extreme caution is in order.
One item of note is called "add/remove programs". It is very useful when software you install doesn't have its own method for removing it when no longer wanted. In that event, you would go to the "add/remove programs" option. You would then be presented with a list of software installed on your computer. I have found the list to be slow to load on computers with Windows XP Home edition. To navigate through the list, you have to use the up and down arrow keys. Unlike other lists of this nature, you cannot hit the first letter of the name of the software you want to find in order to navigate more quickly. It's a bit of a pain to have to use this method but it can at times be the only method for removing or altering the installation options of software.
The date and time option in the control panel allows you, naturally enough, to set the computer's date and time. This is easily done via the combo boxes which let you set the hour, minute and second as well as the proper date. What you may not have guessed is that there are other tabs besides the date and time tab you start out in. You can tell the computer which time zone you're in via the time zones tab. You can also get the computer to synchronize the time with one of many servers attached to atomic clocks run by governments and large corporations. You need to be connected to the Internet in order to make use of the "Internet time" tab. However, you need not have a permanent connection. You could connect to the Internet and then go into that dialogue and instruct the computer to perform the synchronization manually. Those with permanent Internet connections can have this done regularly automatically.
The sound and audio option in the control panel takes you to a very useful dialogue box called "sound and audio properties". This is packed with options to make your computer hum to your tune. You can tell it how many speakers you have so that it adjusts its sound output accordingly. One thing you should check for is that there isn't any software more specific to your particular sound card. I use a Creative sound card and can therefore use the Creative audio console. This is a very accessible way of controlling their sound cards giving you many more specialized options. Other sound cards are likely to come with such software. If you find that this is inaccessible or that your sound card doesn't come with such software, the sound and audio properties dialogue in the control panel will be of special use for you. People may also want to set up sound schemes which assign sounds to events such as navigating through menus, opening and closing programs, and starting or shutting down Windows among many other things. You'll need to know where sound files are in order to produce your own sound scheme. However, you may find that your system comes with some already made for you to choose from.
If you have a laptop computer, it may come with one of those built-in mice installed right in front of the bottom of the keyboard. These can be a real nuisance for those of us who don't make use of mice. If you go to the "mouse" option in the control panel, you can adjust a whole range of settings related to these devices. This includes disabling your mouse which could prove useful if you're finding that it interferes with your use of the computer. I found this with my laptop and have since enjoyed a far more productive relationship with it. You'll have to go to the "hardware" tab of the dialogue box in order to find the "properties" button. Once in that dialogue, you'll come to the part where you can enable or disable it. Should sighted people need access to a mouse, you can always go in there again and enable it for them. An easier option is to carry a USB mouse around with you and simply plug it into a usb port when required.
The power option in the control panel lets you instruct your computer concerning the use of energy. You can create a power scheme or choose one from a number already pre-designed. Power schemes are a certain configuration of settings which tell your computer such things as how long to wait before shutting off parts of the computer. You might want the computer to shut down the hard drives after fifteen minutes of inactivity for example. There are many different tabs in this dialogue box and all sorts of options to customize. You'll most likely find the default settings fine while starting out. However, it's a good idea to look around and know your options in this area.
The other areas of the control panel will function much like these areas have. Look around and explore all your options. Until you have a good idea what you're doing, use the cancel button when you're finished with a dialogue to get back out of it. This way, you can explore settings without making any changes. Eventually, your competence will reach a point where you will start finding good reasons to make use of what's in the control panel. Give it time and play it safe.
We have now completed our basic tour of Windows. Users of the Windows Vista operating system will doubtless find some things to be different than what I've described here. However, according to what I've read, things should still be similar enough for most of what I've written to be useful. You should now know enough to be able to make some use of the rest of this guide. Keep in mind that this is just enough for you to make basic use of Windows. Use other training material and the built-in help to become truly competent users of your machines.


3-- Getting Online:

As delivered, most computers will come with a basic set of software. This will typically include some form of word processor, software related specifically to installed hardware, programs which help you maintain the computer's performance, and so-on. These programs are useful to the widest range of computer owners. For the most part, these should be fully accessible to your access technology. They include things like system maintenance utilities, basic word processing, database and spreadsheet software. These certainly have their uses. People might use a spreadsheet program like Excel to do their budget on. They might keep track of information related to a collection they have in a database. What you start out with depends on a whole range of factors including which operating system you use, what is bundled with your computer, the kind of computer you have, etc. It is therefore impossible for me to adequately cover how to make effective use of this software in the guide. However, this software will typically have plenty of built-in help. If you use other operating systems, be certain that your initial trainers show you how to access your computer's built-in help and documentation. Patience and the willingness to try things out combined with this built-in help are what will pull you through the initial period of using your computer for your own interests.
To truly begin to acquire the resources to get the most out of your computer, you must venture beyond the confines of your hard drive and get yourself on the Internet. There, you will find the information and software to make your computer a more truly personally valuable machine to you. There are a number of ways to go online. For most home users, these are dial up, DSL and cable connections. Dial up connections use your existing phone line to connect you to the Internet. This is normally the cheapest option available. It is also painfully slow by today's standards. I can only recommend this type of connection if you have no other affordable alternative. It's a lot better than nothing at all but there are other disadvantages besides speed. While you're connected to the Internet, your phone line will be busy. You'll also have to disable call waiting while you're online or it may interfere with your connection. I don't remember my dial up days very fondly at all. Most downloading had to be done overnight so I could use my phone during the day. Web sites took ages to load and checking E-mail was about the only thing which seemed to go at a reasonable pace. Of course, if somebody sends you one or more large attachments, you'll wonder what I might mean by "reasonable pace". Want to listen to a trailer for a movie or game? Click on it, go and get a drink and you might not have to wait too much longer after returning to your keyboard and sitting down.
DSL access also uses your existing phone line. However, it does this in such a way that you can still talk on the phone. The connection speed is much faster than dial up. It's about the same as cable connectivity offers. Occasionally, I experienced times when something went wrong with the filters which separate the signals of normal telephone use from Internet use. This can cause static on the line while you're talking and cause your Internet connection to be unreliable. However, such problems are quite rare. Cable connectivity uses the same cable as you use for receiving television. The speed is quite fast but may vary depending on how many subscribers to cable Internet service are in your area. DSL and cable services cost roughly the same. Find out what is available in your area and consider what's best for you. The people who come to install the hardware for either cable or DSL Internet service will make certain things are working for you.
While the installation person is there, it is important to make certain you have the information pertaining to your connection. For example, to set up an Email account using an email program like Outlook Express, you need to know:

1. The name of the pop3 server. For instance,

2. The smtp server. For instance,

3. your account information including your user name and password. These will let you set up email accounts and manage your service.

4. Any important telephone numbers for technical support and customer care. If you have trouble while you're getting up and going, these numbers can help you fill in any gaps in the information you have and how to make use of it. Beyond what's above in this section, I can't really help you more with the nuts and bolts of getting online. It depends on the kind of system you're using, the type of connection and specific provider you choose to deal with. If possible, you should use a router to connect your computer to the Internet. This will improve your security and make it safer to go online without running a firewall if you have to. For more information on Internet security, see the next section.

3.1-- Finding Your Way:

Let us assume that you're all wired up and are ready to enter the Internet. The first topic of discussion has to be your web browser. This is the software which retrieves information from the web and displays the sites you choose to visit. Particular browsers may have different features, use different terminology and be designed with different styles of interface. If you don't end up liking the browser you start out with, you definitely have other options to choose from. As you will likely be making extensive use of the Internet, it's important to be comfortable with your browser. The Windows operating system comes with its own browser called Internet Explorer. This is the browser which I personally use. However, there are also the Firefox, Opera and Webbie browsers to point out a few alternatives. I doubt that you could be given an access technology solution for a computer which wouldn't include at least basic instructions on how to use a browser. If you need more help, I refer you to these instructions.
The help offered within the browser may prove useful. However, users of access technology should first look within the help or manual offered with the specific access technology. For instance, I use the Jaws for Windows screen reader. This gives me an abundance of specialized help which tells me how to use Internet Explorer with Jaws. It even covers the basics of surfing the Internet. Other screen readers will come with specific help related to them. I know how daunting ploughing through help can seem though so I'll go over the bare bones here.
The browser uses your Internet connection to take you to various sites on the Internet. To get to a site, you need to either follow a link from the site you're already on or go directly to its address. Don't panic if you can't think of any addresses to visit. There are search engines to help people find places of interest on the Internet. Enter a phrase, keywords or names into the entry field on a search engine and it will find and display links to relevant sites on a page made in seconds just for you. As with browsers, there are a tremendous lot of different search engines out there. Some are designed to be as friendly as possible to people using access technology. Others sadly aren't very friendly at all. Many sites have convenient entry fields for searching the rest of the Internet right from where you are.
One of the most widely known engines and also one of the most accessible is Google. It's an excellent search engine for novices to use because the page is so straight forward. There are advertisements but none which will cause any trouble with screen readers. There are different ways of typing keywords or phrases into search engines. You can separate keywords by commas which will search for pages containing any or all of the words but not necessarily right near each other. Putting a phrase in quotation marks will cause the search engine to look for pages containing the exact words or phrase you typed in. Search engines like Google have various settings which you can customize to personalize your experience with the engine. A simple example of this is that you can tell google how many results you want to be shown at once.
You can't do any harm by using a search engine. However, you should be aware that the Internet is perhaps more unregulated than any physical location on the planet. Anyone can put up a web site on whatever they want and there are a lot of shady, sexual, pornographic and misleading sites out there. You have to be a savvy consumer of the information you find even if it appears legitimate. It doesn't usually take a lot of time or effort to find out about a site you've found something of interest on. Legitimate sites will have links to pages which explain all about them and the information presented. Remember too that good information need not come from a government, library or other organization. We all have knowledge about things which take our interest and the Internet lets people share this wisdom freely. It is perhaps the most powerful catalyst for sharing of information that the world has ever seen and blind people can participate fully in this arena.
Here are some excellent resources to get your online life started. Note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list and that I can only vouch for these links being accurate up to the time that I publish this guide. On the bright side, I have taken great pains to choose places designed for and often by blind people which have proved to be popular and have stood the test of time. Barring disaster, they'll be around for years to come. This should give novices a good first online experience free of many of the annoyances and dangers out there. Have fun looking around but keep in mind that you should get your computer protected as soon as possible. I'll guide you through that in the next section.

3.2-- Initial Online Destinations:

For each web site in this list, I'll provide its name, address and then a brief description of what it offers. Once you've learned how, you can simply copy and paste the link into the place in your browser where web addresses should be typed. At first, you may have to remember and type in addresses. Fortunately, many of the sites set up for and by the blind community have links to each other. This will let you get around easier once you've taken the first step of going to a site assuming it has a collection of links to others.
ACB Radio
This site is an incredibly successful project of the American Council for the Blind. It features five Internet radio stations run by and especially for blind people. One station, "Interactive", allows blind people to become broadcasters. The Mainstream station features information shows as well as interactive talk radio shows pertaining to blindness. The Treasure Trove features continuous old-time radio broadcasts. The Cafe is dedicated specifically to playing music by blind musicians. Listeners and broadcasters are in around seventy countries. No better place exists to find out and participate in what's happening in the blindness community.
Blind Cool Tech
This site is the home of an ongoing pod cast to which anyone may contribute. Thinking outside the box doesn't do this site justice. Taken directly from the site's frequently asked questions "faq" section:

Blind Cool Tech is a pod cast that brings some fun, education, and variety into your mp3 player. The show provides interviews, brings you along on sound seeing tours, and discusses life and cool technology, especially technology that blind people can use. Most computers will already have the software necessary to play mp3 files which are audio recordings of various things. A very interesting treat for the ears and dirt simple to access even for beginners.

Blind Planet:

This relatively new site proclaims itself to be "the best blind community on the net". While that may very well be debatable, the site creators have certainly packed a lot of punch into their place on the Internet. You will find facilities to create your own blog, type "shouts" [short messages for all visitors of the site to see], sections on everything from books to software and tutorials, facilities for voice chatting over the Internet, and much more. One of my favourite features of the site is a news aggregator. This brings news of interest to blind people in from all over the Internet and puts it all onto a single page. It's like our own specialized newspaper which is updated every twenty minutes presuming there's new content on any of numerous other sites it collects information from. Hard to beat that for getting a quick sense of the online blind community. That news collector is an absolutely fabulous gateway to many sites which are treasure troves of useful information.

For The People:

Note: Dashes are between each word in the above link.

This Internet community is one of the most active serving the blind community. There are ones which use better software, but the volunteers who run For The People seem to know how to keep things safe, lively and friendly. Everyone must register with the site before they can chat. Registration is free and means that people are accountable for their conduct. You need to have a microphone plugged into your computer. Membership is completely free of charge. Due to the guidelines and moderators present, this community is also about as safe as things get for children online.
The Hadley School for the Blind

As they say on their homepage: "The Hadley School for the Blind is the largest worldwide distance educator of blind and visually impaired people, their families and blindness service professionals. Founded in 1920 by William Hadley and Dr. E.V.L. Brown, Hadley offers classes free of charge to its blind and visually impaired students and their families and affordable tuition classes to blindness professionals. Today, the school serves more than 10,000 students annually in all 50 states and 100 countries. Hadley relies on contributions from individuals, foundations and corporations to fund its programs."

The courses certainly include ones on the use of accessible computers as well as a very wide range of other subjects.
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How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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