Archive for September, 2007

Look, ma, no screens!! nvda, non-Visual Desktop Access, is my new Reader.

September 22, 2007

Summary: This Vision Loser makes the transition to screen reader dependence, sets up her new tablet notebook with mostly open source apps, and learns many painful new routines.

As my vision changed over the past year, I started to use Narrator, the minimalist screen reader built into Windows XP speaking in Microsoft Sam. I had seen and heard demos of the standard Freedom Scientific JAWS and GW Micro WindowEyes and also tried the newcomer System Access to Go but could not bring myself to invest the $$ fees and upgrade slippery slope and irreversible learning time. However, something deeper, perhaps my Rebel archetype, said “don’t go with the traditional, but find your own pathway.” After all, I’m not on the “rehab grid”, I pay my own way, I appreciate and understand software, and I have time to experiment.

A short flirtation with the Thunder screen reader supported many of my needs, but was rather, well, quirky. A podcast on ACB Replay and review from Blind Geek Zone introduced the nvda (non visual desktop access) open source, free screen reader from young Michael Current, a blind Australian, and his budding infrastructure nvAccess . A simple install, the quick start on the screen, an easy switch to my own synthetic voices, and a bout of fumbling with the keyboard and I knew this was, for me, “the real thing”.

As luck would have it, my Dell notebook’s screen dissolved and I needed to move my primary connectivity and screen to backup Toshiba tablet now also getting a bit old and precarious. With a new tablet moving into the household, along with the Linux-based Icon PDA and it was time to totally remodel my computing environment and my brains, hands, mouse, and reflex “operating system”.

Any relocation, whether household or computer, is a time of mental and emotional turmoil. What applications should I move, e.g. the text reader discussed earlier, and the voice data files I’ve grown accustomed to? Where are the license keys, the setups’ or links to later versions? Maybe it’s also time to revamp my myriad email accounts now mostly funneled through gmail, which I love-hate? Do I want to commit my new setup to the “stove pipe of evil” — Microsoft office, Internet Explorer, Outlook Express? A month later, I’m trying to distill in this post my painful experiences, with more to come later on gmail and portable apps and recent announcements from Mozilla and IBM.

First, let’s define a “screen reader” as really a “screen listener” which responds to events from the Windows operating system and running applications as the user moves focus around the screen. Usually the OS and applications express themselves with dialog boxes and wait for user requests on menus and buttons. The screen listener picks up information about these events and speaks them through a speech engine and chosen synthetic voice files. This is really complicated because there are so many levels of operating systems and applications software, mechanical and electronic hardware in keyboards and mouse, and users flittering around the screen looking for something with their finger or finger surrogates twitching movements leading to a rapid stream of events to be mediated by the screen listener, vying with other processes for memory resources, preferably without crashing.

Narrator is actually understated in value, as Microsoft software goes. Upon initiation, a dialog warns that you’ll probably want a more robust screen reader for everyday use, but well, here’s Narrator for backup or to get you started. Indeed, one purpose of Narrator is to try to assist Windows installation. If you are unfamiliar with Narrator, go to the Start button and type Run and then Narrator or find and work through the Accessibility Wizard. Narrator will occasionally choke when Windows is in a precarious state, but can usually be counted on to walk through the primary windows on the screen and through the file explorer. Therefore, here’s my

Fundamental rule of survival:

(***) Keep Narrator as a backup and remember how to use it with different types of outage: eyesight, mouse, keyboard, resources. It’s there on the desktop as a shortcut in my 911Emergency folder, on the Windows start menus (added in the users + You + startup directory, and specifically added in the startup directory. Of course, you have to find it first and create a shortcut to copy around. And there’s the Start button + Run + Narrator.

Setting up nvda:

nvda is available from ….with either an installer or a zip extractor version. The installer may be hard to understand voice-wise and may be overkill. nvda has a very important property of being a Portable App that keeps all its files in a single directory that will run from wherever it’s extracted, including a USB memory stick. Portability means that you can walk up to modern Windows systems, plug in the memory stick, start nvda from an autorun or shortcut, and you’re in screen listening mode, albeit maybe not with your accustomed voices.

nvda has a number of Preferences to set up or leave as defaults: speech engine, voice and its speed, how much to read punctuation, and rules of behavior in a browser (called “virtual buffer”).

Each screen reader package has a “modifier” key to be keyed in conjunction with letters and other keys. nvda uses the Insert (INS), which may be found in widely varying places on keyboards: immediately right of space on Toshiba, upper right corner on Motion Computing tablet plastic cover keyboard, and middle right of backspace on my Bluetooth 101 full sized keyboard. One of the hassles, a dread for me, is memorizing the needed keys for the screen reader and my customary applications. It’s boring, never-ending, and I just needed to get over An audio tour on the nvAccess website prodded me to continue trying, even to “RTFM”.

Here’s my memory bank to illustrate a few:

Windows shortcuts: ALT+TAB among windows, ALT+F4 to exist an app, ESC to get out of most dialogs, space or enter to push a button, TAB to move around in a window, right and left to open and close tree views with up and down inside a tree,

Trainer Karen McCall of Karlen Communications in Canada calls this knowledge “literacy” but it is often not learned until needed and then becomes essential. with nvda (or any other screen reader), a user must develop a rhythm of interaction, receiving and interpreting speech feedback, e.g. where a TAB has taken you, within or among applications.

nvda frequent actions in Mozilla Firefox include: “h” to headings, k to links, up down between lines, top to reload, combining with Firefox shortcuts control+F to quick find a phrase, control+k to open a search, control+L to type in a location, control+TAB to move among tabs, control+T to create a new tab. And now the big switcheroo in a screen reader is to notify it you’re in an edit box and don’t want the k and other nvda operations, invoked by Insert+Space, known as “virtual buffer passthrough on or off”, always to be remembered on forms.

Well, to wrap up this post, I highly recommend nvda for partially sighted users. It works unbelievably well, especially considering the price ($0) and ease of setup and portability. It lacks the scripting and maturity of the big $1000 packages but has a corps of open source developers helping out, i.e. nvda has a rapid trajectory of development and improvement. As a developer myself, nvda is inspirational, showing how much one dedicated technical person can accomplish in a remarkably short span of time.

My prejudice toward open source throws some light on my above semi-facetious comment about the “stove pipe of evil”. “Stove pipe” refers to communities that don’t talk to each other very much and only use software within their pipe or area. I’m not implying Microsoft evil empire here but rather that lock-in is a user choice that I do not want for myself. Too often I’ve received email which consists of a paragraph written as a MS WORD which I need to click to launch a big application to read, which assumes I own MS WORD or have its reader working, when a simple text body of a message would be safer (clicking an attachment asks for trouble, like a virus), lighter, and easier to produce. Outlook is OK but too attached to WORD. Internet Explorer has finally provided the tabbed windows available for years in Mozilla Firefox, and is a fine browser, but not attractive to me after Firefox. Where I’m let down now in the open sources space is OpenOffice which is inaccessible with nvda. Mostly, my Rebel says to go follow the path of most freedom and change if it offers the affordability and functionality I need.

More to come on “Portable Apps, a good trend, and ones that work for me”, “Living in the new operating system of Web 2.0 and browsers”, and “untangling and reading gmail”.

Summary: I finally took the big leap away from the screen following the nvda screen reader as I set up a new computing environment better accommodating my changing vision, acting as my own rehab support and tra