How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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you will find a "Join a mailing list" link which will present you with a larger collection of lists whose topic you might be interested in.
Before you go too deeply into these lists, you should be aware that most of them have their own policies which all members are expected to uphold. These will likely be sent to you after you subscribe to the list. It's always a good idea to save a copy of these rules in addition to any information such as user names, passwords, methods of subscribing and leaving, etc. Keep in mind that people won't always interpret the emotion behind your words correctly. Email is so easy and quick to type up that people treat it much like casual speaking. Unfortunately, it lacks the ability to convey tone of voice. As a result, things can become heated rather unexpectedly. Particularly when you're offering criticism or explaining something, take the extra thirty seconds to make as certain as you can that people won't misinterpret your well-meant remarks as attacks. This problem can very frequently occur and get out of control on Email lists. It's best to approach things in these online communities with a very thick skin. Even if somebody responds aggressively or insultingly to a message, keep in mind that the original message's intent might have been misunderstood. Always remember that what you write is not necessarily private. Lists keep archives of messages which can be searched by other members or quite often by anybody at all. Also, once you've sent a message, there is no taking it back. Your words are out there now and there's nothing you can do but offer an apology if you later regret what you've written.
Keep in mind that you shouldn't give away sensitive information such as your bank account, home address or the like via Email unless there's a specific need to. Also, never respond directly to an Email which appears to come from your bank, PayPal, or another financially or personally important place. Always go to the appropriate web-site with your browser. Don't click on a link provided in the Email. Chances are that it is spam. The genuine bank or other online place of business likely hasn't sent the message and had no idea that you have it. PayPal users may get quite a number of these messages. I certainly have. Some of these may indeed be genuine. That's why it's a good idea to go to your account once in a while and make certain that everything is normal. I got a number of messages once saying that the policy of using PayPal had changed and that I needed to update my account. I finally decided to go to PayPal at:

and check on whether these reminders were real or not. I was surprised to see that indeed they were. I only had a short time to update my policy before my use of PayPal would have been limited. The only time you should click on a link in such messages is when it makes sense that you couldn't go through the web site. A good example of this is when you're verifying Email addresses. PayPal needed me to verify that my Email address was genuine and provided a link in an Email they sent me. By clicking on that link, I quickly indicated that my address was in fact legitimate. The email with the link arrived very shortly after I signed up so I knew it was genuinely from PayPal. It made sense for me to click on that link. As long as you think before blithely clicking on links in messages and have Internet security software running, you should be quite safe from the more nasty effects of the plague of spam out there.
Despite its drawbacks including spam, Email is a fantastic addition to life for people wanting to expand their horizons and learn more. There are many different programs called Email clients which will let people send and receive mail. Users of Windows operating systems will start with Outlook Express or Windows Mail if they are using Vista. They may also make use of Eudora as an example of an accessible alternative. Outlook Express has certainly been more than adequate for my needs.
Let's go on a brief tour of my email client of choice as I check my email, read any I might receive and send a message. Your email client might have different menus and slightly different names for things but the basics will always be the same since the purpose of all email clients is the same. The first thing to do is open the client. I've elected not to have an icon for it on my desktop so I go to the start menu and into the "programs" menu. I then type the letter o. Since nothing else uses that letter currently, I'm taken directly into the program as it launches. I've configured it so that I always start in my in box. This change is made in the "options" dialog which you can get to by going over to the tools menu. This is only one of several folders. You can make more folders for certain messages if you want to have your email more organized. This can be very useful once you've joined one or more email lists which are high-traffic. There are times when you just want to look at email sent specifically to you rather than the groups you belong to. That's getting a little ahead of ourselves. For now, all email will be placed in your in box. Any mail waiting to be sent will be in your out box. There are also folders for draft copies of messages, sent items, and deleted messages. If you accidentally delete a message in Outlook Express, it will still be in the "deleted items" folder until you empty that folder or close Outlook Express. If you want to prevent items in the "deleted items" folder from being permanantly deleted until you specifically order the folder emptied, you can inform Outlook Express of your wish in the "options" dialogue box. Go to the "maintenance" tab and you'll find the checkbox which you can uncheck so that items aren't deleted when Outlook Express closes.
To see if I have any new email, I go to the tools menu using the alt key and then arrowing right over the file, edit and view menus. I then arrow down to the "send and receive" submenu. Arrowing right opens this menu and puts me on the first option which is "send and receive all". That's what I'd like to do so I hit the enter key. You may notice that there is a shortcut key for doing this. I could do the same thing by simply hitting control-m. Learning these shortcut keys for tasks you do often can save you time and keystrokes in the long run. However, you should take the time to explore the menus in your software and become familiar with what they have to offer. When Outlook Express has finished retrieving my new mail, I hear a small doorbell-like sound indicating this. Looking in my in box, I find a message from Tom Peters. He belongs to an initiative run by American libraries using accessible software to host online events which anybody can attend. Emails are like forms with different headers or fields containing information. The first field shows who the message is from. The next field displays the date and time the message was sent assuming things are set up the same way. It's possible to change the layout of information as well as which information is shown. The next field shows who the message was sent to. In this case, the message is addressed to the OPAL email list to which I belong. The next field is where the subject is displayed. A message has a subject line which should let you know briefly what the message is about. This lets you see if you're interested enough to read the message without having to open it up. As this particular announcement doesn't interest me, I elect to delete the message. It's now moved into my deleted items folder.
Had I chosen to read the announcement, I would have hit the enter key which would open the message and place me at the top of the message body. This is where the text of the message is. I could then read the message using the down arrow or the key combination which lets me read an entire document continuously. You may have things configured so that messages automatically start being read to you. It all depends on what your access technology has been set up to do. In some cases such as if you're using Thunder, you may have to configure your client to read messages as plain text rather than as html. In outlook Express, you do this in the "options" dialogue which you get to via the "tools menu. Go to the "read" tab using the left and right arrows once you're positioned on the "general" tab. When you get to the "read" tab, use the tab key to cycle through the items in that section. There's a checkbox which tells Outlook Express to read all messages as plain text. Hit the space bar to check or uncheck the box. Remember to tab to the "apply" button and hit the space bar. This applies your changes if you've made them. You can then go to the ok button. Links won't be active if you're reading messages in plain text so you'll have to copy and paste links to sites instead of just clicking on them. That as well as hearing all sorts of extra characters will be the most obvious effects of reading messages containing HTML as plain text. All those weird characters actually tell the computer to display things in a different way. If your access technology can handle HTML messages as most can, you shouldn't hear all the strange characters. Those are pretty much the basics of reading emails. It's quite simple really. Now, let's look at writing an email.
There are a few different ways of composing an email. You can create one from scratch, reply to an email you've been sent, or forward an email to one or more people. Your email client will have options for doing all of these. Let's take the case of sending an original message since the other options are essentially doing the same thing with more information included. To send a new message using Outlook Express, I use the control-n shortcut. I could also go into the "file" menu using the alt key, go down to the "new" submenu, and then right which gets me to "new mail message". Hitting enter on that will open a new message form and put you on the "to" field. Assuming you've set up Outlook Express, it will fill in the "from" and "date" headers. To go between parts of an email, use either tab or shift-tab to cycle through the sections. After I fill in the "to" header with the email address of the person I want to contact, I hit the tab key to get to the next field. You may encounter fields labelled "cc" and "bcc". This is "carbon copy" or "blind carbon copy". If you want to send the same message to more than one person, use one of these fields. Separate multiple email addresses with semicolons. The difference is as follows: If you put addresses of additional recipients in the "cc" field, people receiving your message will be able to see the addresses of other people who received it. This isn't always desired as people may not want others to know their email address. Also, you personally might not want people to know who else is receiving the message. Simply use the blind carbon copy or bcc field to enter the addresses of people you want to receive your message and they won't see each other's addresses. The next field over is where you put the subject of your message. This single line should contain a brief phrase which lets the reader know what your message is about. For instance, a subject might say "yesterday's game" or "your farming ideas". This lets the potential reader decide whether and/or when to read the message. The next field is where you write the body of your message. After that's done, the email can be sent on its way.
That ought to give you enough of a basic working knowledge of email to get you started. A little patience and consulting with the online help of your particular client of choice will let you master this form of communication quite quickly and painlessly. Creating folders and message rules, attaching pictures or other files, creating a signature which appears on all your messages, etc, are typically options which a little effort and time will allow you to take advantage of. Go through all the menus of your email client of choice and don't be afraid to use the built-in help. Searching for terms you don't understand as well as help or guides for the software you've chosen will also potentially prove useful. Finally, you can now use email to seek help from friends or other people who use the same software as you. It's time we moved on to cover other areas of Internet communication.


7.2-- Text and Voice Chat
Things were really starting to get going in accessible games. The community of gamers was well into the hundreds and a number of game developers had arisen. I had recently joined a community called Audio-tips and was very impressed with being able to talk to people at no cost no matter where they were as long as they were members of the site. One night, I decided to start a weekly chat session about accessible games. I hadn't given very much notice of this to anybody so I was quite surprised at the eventual turn-out of some thirteen of us. This included at least two game developers. Many more of these would attend in future chat sessions. As more game developers joined the band-wagon, more of their fans showed up in hopes of being able to talk to them. It was such an amazing enhancement going from text sent back and forth interpreted by synthetic speech to being able to truly talk to each other. I already felt a keen responsibility for the community I had unwittingly started with my magazine. This made it all hit home that much more powerfully. Short of actually attending a physical gathering, it was as close as we could all get and a whole lot better than simple email. You could hear the excitement as developers discussed their plans and they could get an immediate sense of what their fans thought. These were real people who were passionate enough about accessible games to coordinate their schedules so they could attend. That sense of exhilarating novelty has since faded somewhat but the effectiveness of such tools has only grown with time as more people sign up with one or more of these special sites set up for blind people to communicate in this manner.
This communication is made possible by many different programs. Most of these involve installing what is called a chat client on your computer. This software connects your computer to a central server set up to facilitate communication between people. I've been using this kind of communication since the early 1990's when it was done over phone lines and bulletin-board systems. Today, the Internet has completely removed the need to worry about distance and costs of any kind. You can communicate freely for as long as you like with people from anywhere in the world as long as they too are similarly hooked into the Internet and have the same chat client. If you have a microphone and a multi-channel sound card, you can talk to people directly. Any modern personal computer will likely have a multi-channel sound card built into it. Only people using older equipment are likely to find that their sound card won't let them use a screen-reader and chat via voice over the Internet at the same time. This works even between large numbers of people. I've attended countless events and classes run using this kind of technology.
To take part in chat communities, you'll typically have to register at the web site hosting the community. In some instances, you will merely be asked to type in your name whenever you enter a chat room. An example of this is Our place which is run by ACB Radio. No registration is required to talk in those rooms. However, this means that there is no real accountability. People can enter any name they like and nobody is moderating the rooms in case there are trouble-makers. These people are out there. Sadly, it's not hard to completely wreck a good conversation in progress. The communities which make their users register to use their facilities are run by groups of people who keep things orderly and hold people accountable for their conduct. Events and rooms are more likely to have people in them who are entrusted with moderator powers. If people use foul language in a room meant to be safe for children or decide to hold down the key and babble inanely, these moderators can step in and restore order. Registration is normally free. Sometimes, there are two levels of membership where you can participate in some events or enter certain rooms only after paying a membership fee. It all depends on who runs the community and what purpose it serves.
In most cases, people take turns holding down a key in order to talk. They then release the key when they've finished speaking and somebody else has a turn. It is usually also possible to type text into a chat window. Newcomers should be aware that just because it's possible to type text rather than talk, it's not always encouraged. This is because people find it hard to listen to the synthetic voice they'll likely be using to operate their computer in addition to the voice of whoever's talking. Until you find out otherwise, it's usually best not to type text unless people ask you for information or you urgently need to say something. For instance, you might want to type the word "break" so that people know you want to talk. This is good if you have to leave for some reason and don't want to simply disappear without saying goodbye. Also, if you get a phone call, you can type in a note to tell people that. This way, they'll know why you haven't answered them or why you might not have heard everything that was said.
I'll now go through each of the main voicechat communities set up to be accessible to blind people. There may very well be more out there which I'm unaware of. However, this should give you a number of safe places to start out. Each new listing will be preceded by a double asterisk. If a community description doesn't appeal to you, simply skip to the next double-asterisk and read on.
**Audio tips
This community is set up to be a free and safe place for people to chat with each other. It makes use of a special chat client designed to be as friendly to access technology as possible. The owners of the community insist that people use their real names. Events include movies, bible studies, singing, and more.
**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.
**Our Place:
ACB Radio has set up this collection of chat rooms for people to use. Some are named for specific purposes but the only time I've ever seen any degree of control be exercised is when a room is used for recording events for broadcast on ACB Radio. Otherwise, they're open to absolutely anybody and no registration is required. You should use some caution in these rooms as there's no way of telling whether people are using their real names.
**The Zone Bbs
This community is set up to resemble a bulletin board system or BBS in terms of its atmosphere. However, it takes full advantage of the modern Web interface. Headings, combo boxes and links are the order of the day. The Zone features a very simple and effective instant messenging system allowing people on the site at the same time to communicate directly with the whole group or each other more privately. To update the messages displayed on the site, one need only refresh the page or click on a link taking people to a different area of the site. It doesn't get much more simple than that. People can also communicate via voicechat if they don't mind installing and setting up a chat client called Ventrillo.. Excellent instructions are provided on the site. One thing to note about the Ventrillo experience is that it allows for more than one person to talk at the same time. That can be a bit confusing if too many people are in the same room. It's quite different than most other communities which make people take turns having the floor. You can also call the Zone by phone. Forums, games and more can be found on the Zone. While you can decide to become a paying member, you don't have to. A group of people on the Zone keep things orderly and make certain there is accountability.
**Vip Conduit
This member-supported community is extremely well-run and has a wide variety of scheduled events to keep it lively. There are many different rooms to suit various topics and there are people in charge of moderating things to keep everyone accountable. Paying for membership entitles you to increased access to events and some other bonuses. However, there are rooms and events available for non-paying members. The chat software used by this site is extremely accessible and was designed by blind people for blind people. There are scripts for users of Jaws for Windows. These are helpful but it is quite possible to use the chat software without them.

7.3-- Instant Messengers
These chat communities are an excellent thing for hooking up with other blind people. However, not too many sighted folks seem to use them. They generally prefer the use of what are known as instant messengers. These programs are usually free to obtain and use. They are normally left running in the background while your computer is on. Once you and someone you want to contact have exchanged the user names or email addresses used to identify each other, you'll be able to tell when a person is available and communicate with them. Some instant messengers like Windows Live Messenger allow you to talk via voice, send small voice clips back and forth, share files, and do other things than simply type to each other. All instant messengers allow that last capability by definition. I would include Skype in the same category of software despite its being designed mainly for voice communication. It also keeps track of which contacts are online and available.
Which messengers are accessible to you depends on the access technology choices you've made and the operating system you're using. Windows users have many different options. I've never been a particularly keen user of these programs and can therefore only offer general advice on their use. Fortunately, there is always built-in help or fellow users to be referred to for specific instructions. Most of these programs are free to obtain and use. That's right! You can be in Canada and know when your friend in England is also online and available to chat. You can then chat for as long as you like without anybody paying long distance charges. It's a wonder the phone companies are still in business.
You'll naturally be wondering why it is that I don't have one of these programs running constantly. Basically, it's because they often directly intrude into other things you're doing. I do a lot of writing and other activities on the computer which require that I not be distracted from my thoughts. I'll be working away when suddenly, some well-meaning fool on my list of contacts decides it's time to strike up a typed conversation with me. One second, I'm hearing what I expect to hear my computer saying as I put it through its paces. The next, it starts announcing whatever they've typed in. I could be in the middle of reading the most absolutely profound piece of wisdom in months and that'll suddenly change to: "Hi Mike. What's up?" I might have finally conquered my writer's block and thought of a brilliant idea. However, before I can write enough of it down for it to be safe, my instant messenger feels the need to tell me that person x has just signed in or out. That pronouncement completely derails my train of thought. The best idea I've had in days is destroyed in the wreckage never to occur to me again. There's nobody to blame but me for not remembering that I had set my instant messenger to automatically sign me in when I booted my computer and was online. That's why I don't run any of those messengers unless there's somebody I specifically want to contact.
I also find it somewhat difficult juggling two or more separate conversations at once when everyone talks with the same synthetic voice. I know, damn it! That makes me a grumpy old dinosaur from another era. Frantically trying to read a conversation history whose content is continuously added to while formulating an answer which may well already be inappropriate to the current context just isn't where the fun is at for me. It leaves me feeling like a digital deer caught in cybernetic headlights about to be turned into road kill on the information superhighway. Once you've become widely known for something you've done online, you should be very careful who you let onto your contacts list. Often, before I whittled down the contacts on my list, I had the experience of logging in to talk to one person only to have six or seven people seem to all pounce on me at once for a chat. That can be somewhat disconcerting given my inability to keep multiple threads of separate conversation going smoothly in my brain.
In all fairness, there are a lot of ways you can take charge of the situation with instant messengers. You can only actually be signed in when you choose to be and just have the program loaded. You can also change your status displayed to other users which can say that you're busy, away, etc. If users are being too bothersome, you can block them and delete them from your list of contacts. You have quite a lot of control over your experience as long as your familiar with all your options. Many blind people I've talked with have no problem carrying on six or seven different conversations while working and listening to music at the same time. While I have the computer skills to do that, my mind just couldn't cope with all those different streams of input at once. I must be getting old. Before you start using your instant messenger or messengers of choice, take the time to explore the software and be familiar with your options, privacy settings, etc. Like security software, this is one of those cases where you definitely want to be the master of it rather than the other way around.
Lets have a look at a very popular instant messenger called Skype. Of all such software I've messed around with so far, it has come to be a favourite. The developers are aware of their blind users and have gone to some trouble to make their software more accessible. Additionally, there may very well be special files produced to increase the functionality of Skype with whatever screen reader you may have chosen. There are such files for Jaws for Windows as well as Windoweyes. To download this free software, go to:

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How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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