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

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


  • nvda home at nvAcess
    nvda audio tour by developer Michael Curran
    and review by Rick Harmon of
    Blind Geek Zone also found in
    the enormous collection

    Blind Cool Tech Podcast 1020

  • Karen McCall’s Keyboard Literacy tests are great refreshers or learning guides. Note: many articles in PDF and RTF are easily converted with “View as HTML” by searching in Google, “Karen McCall keyboard literacy”.

  • Access World reviews of screen readers. Search for Jaws, WindowEyes, System Access, VoiceOver, etc.

  • Blind Confidential Blog provices in-depth discussion and comparison of screen readers by an Assistive Technology industry veteran.

    “Eyes On Success” podcast on “Evolution of Screen Readers”

Help! I’m being updated to death!

Many applications and systems software take advantage of the “always on” status of networked PCs by performing frequent updates for security precautions as well as normal regular updates. These updates can be very intrusive, indeed competing with each other for attention, and sometimes cause havoc of their own. This Vision Loser just spent several harrowing hours overcoming a bad attack of update mania by Windows, Norton Security, and Mozilla Firefox.

I’ve been in transition from a notebook with a dead screen to a different notebook awaiting a new tablet PC. I was just setting up an external monitor, using the extended desktop which requires alignment of primary and secondary screens. With the multi-tabbed Display Properties dialog on the screen, my attention was rather rudely diverted to Mozilla Firefox announcing its intent to update and then failure during the process, probably lack of Internet or wireless connection. Turning attention back to the Display Setting dialog (so I thought), I clicked OK and watched in dismay as the pretty pastoral screen on Windows XP appeared. The problem for my weak eyesight is the extreme brightness of that display theme versus the High Contrast Black I work in comfortably. Apparently, I had changed the theme as well as monitor settings. For a while, I felt like the proverbial deer in the headlights,stunned, and immobile.

Well, OK, I’ve been through this before, but not on this particular notebook with this external monitor, both beaming away at my overworked photoreceptors. My remedies were there if I could see through the brightness, relying on the hit-and-miss, ugly-sounding, but often help Windows Narrator to talk me through the menus, tabs, and buttons:
1) Bring up Display Properties again and fumbled around for High Contrast Black
2) Go to Control Panel then Accessibility and find, I hoped, the Accessibility Wizard
3) Go to Start, All Programs, Accessories, Accessibility then, finally, the Accessibility Wizard
4) Work through the Windows Explorer into Windows then Accessibility folder to the Accessibility Wizard

For one reason or another, each of these failed. Either the Accessibility Wizard wasn’t where I remembered it or I couldn’t reach it in a cascade of menus nor could I locate High Contrast in Display Properties.

In frustration I resorted to a sighted person, a grumbling sleepy teenager, to talk through the Wizard and restore my relative serenity of dark background. Meantime, Mozilla and Norton were battling for attention to do their updating business.

So, what’s the big deal here? First, is the annoying disruptive practice of of semi-automatic updating that saps away energy and introduces user error opportunities. That is, for this Vision Loser, updating at the wrong moment is sometimes a major disruption. At least here the error’s consequences were totally visible rather than a small change like a check box that could have required a lot of trace-back and debugging to find, later, after I’d forgotten where I was making changes..

Second, since I rarely work in the normal bright Windows mode, I experienced a visceral reaction to the unwanted change. In a recent podcast, NosillaCast’s Alison Sheridan discussed this phenomenon in the context of the Mac Finder, expressed in terms as “physical assault” by a hyper-bright window. Often sighted people, especially designers, have the misconception that the brighter and more colorful the effect the better, and that this rule applies especially to partially sighted users. Rather the mantra for me is “Contrast, Contrast, Contrast”. A simple screen with clear outlines, a restful dark background and white or pale foreground, with images only that have clear meanings is the ideal. I’ve been working on this in the form of a Java framework for the @Podder podcatcher I’ll discuss in a future post.

Two improvements in my practice did occur from this little episode. First, I now have a better organized Start Menu with a special folder named “911 EMERGENCY” which stands out in a folder list in Start Menus and on the Desktop. It contains shortcuts for the Accessibility Wizard for which I’ve memorized the options and their order, as well as the Mouse Settings, and launchers for order and Magnifier, the built-in Windows accessibility tools. This is the equivalent of carrying a small first aid kit on a hike, and the lesson I learned today was never to leave home without it.

Another benefit of this excursion was a catch-up on the Accessibility Features of Mozilla Firefox, rightfully touted as low-vision friendly. I learned the setting that allows me to just start typing to find a part of a web page — neat! There’s more to learn and this confirms my recent decision to set up my browsing environment around Firefox and its add-ons (including the TextAloud reader and soomer).

Moral of this story: Beware of hazards of over-zealous updating applications and give them the right of way.

One more thought, wouldn’t it be nice if the updating applications could be spoken rather than pattern-matched out of dialogs, e.g. “Mozilla Firefox wants to update its XX and YY components to make your browser faster/safer/better. You’ll notice the following changes (or none) which may affect these add-ons…”. Just like a good dentist or other professional will give you a coherent explanation of its planned actions, so should software interact with its human clients

So, Norton, Adobe, Microsoft, Mozilla, and all you other update maniacs, think about every intrusion you foist your users Is that change really necessary? Could you, maybe, fix all your buffer overflows before the next release? instead of one at a time? How about checking if your user is using a screen reader, or has voices available, and give a polite request rather than only a dialog to join the window clutter? Could updates be no more complicated than an install? Could the dialog boxes at least be readable by simple screen readers like Narrator or even by low vision users? Come on, you inaccessible update bullies, mind your manners. Please, please, please, please don’t update me to death!

Aren’t we Vision Losers lucky?

Aren’t we lucky? Just when our vision starts to deteriorate on us, there comes a whole new medium of information, entertainment, and inspiration opening up to fill our ears, and our years. This new medium is called "podcasting" but you will not need an ipod, not even ear buds, just your PC, speakers, and audio player, which probably come with the package. Add one piece of additional free software, called a podcatcher, and you’ve entered a new world. One theme in this blog is the full utilization of the podcasting medium for the benefit of Vision Losers of a certain age.

Who are this so-called ‘we’, the lucky ones, the generalization of the singular self-styled Vision Loser? who is this blog written for?

Well, there are literally millions of over-50 people with variations of macular degeneration and other forms of retinopathy who retain partial sight, enough to operate most software packages, on a decent vision day, albeit somewhat more clumsy than the multi-tasking, keyboard-glued, Internet-addicted younger generations. Many of us have been using computers for work, for communication, and for gaming for years, while some of us are newbies to the Internet and the PC world. Our ranks are growing rapidly with the baby boomer generation. Plus, others who care about the well-being of those losing vision.

The lucky ones are those who can take full advantage of a low-cost, vibrant, versatile, varied, stimulating medium especially helpful for those in vision loss transition. That’s our main message: use the podcasting medium to supplant print-based activities and to introduce yourself to the technology, people, and philosophy of the parallel world of the partially sighted and fully blind.

The quality of life we address in this blog are the "partially sighted" who have lost some significant properties of vision: contrast, color, print discrimination, or steady lines of objects. More challenging are normal abilities to read, drive, converse with facial and body awareness, Gone are many energy-saving and safety-providing actions formerly taken for granted. Being partially sighted is far different from being completely blind because the world is continually playing tricks on you, luring you to "see” but denying you all the details in your partial sight, you live with the shape shifter and Trickster archetypes.

Meanwhile, strangers, colleagues and friends and family cannot recognize your problems because, quote, you "do not look blind" — whatever that means. You are perfectly capable of absorbing and giving information through digital media, but at a loss to sort the mail and read important matters without adaptive technology. You need some help, but maybe not the full-blown, costly equipment avai able to the fully blind.

One way to appreciate this quality of life — both the losses and retained skills — is listening to podcasts by people dealing with their losses in similar situations. Aren’t we lucky that we can find and follow the inspiration of such people, without stretching our personal limits of energy and mobility? This blog will take you through a tangle of podcasts to place ourselves in a virtual crowd of like-abled people.

With our partial sight, we can avail ourselves of many PC packages with only a modest additional expense and some self-training.We clearly have one foot in the blind camp where many software vendors offer custom products, but at an expense that is often borne by employers, rehab offices, and educational systems. Being of a more advanced aged, perhaps out of the work force, some of us struggle with many trade-offs of finance, training, and frustration less faced by those with no options, like the blind. But it turns out there is a rich suite of relatively low cost packages on the market which this blog seeks to motivate and explain individually and together.

The trick is to think as a "system integrator” who identifies tasks, and processes, and quality factors then finds components that work together to provide a high enough level of productivity and quality of getting our work and our fun under control. These include text-to-speech readers of web, mail, and other documents; partial screen readers: that guide us around software tools on our screen; and magnifiers that zoom in on smudges of print we want to see but not hear.

Aren’t we lucky, that vendors have found a large enough market of people like us, or with similar needs, to produce tools we can integrate into our environments? Aren’t we lucky that a few years ago breakthroughs in speech synthesis have given us voices that resonate in personality while they clearly read for us? Aren’t we lucky that podcasting came along to give us access to many product reviews, demonstrations, and testimonials?

This blog describes a combination of free and low-cost products that can launch a Vision Loser into a more effective, still familiar, way of using our PCs. And one of these software products is a podcatcher customized for partially sighted people.

But, isn’t it strange, that we Vision Losers might have the advantage of early adoption of speech interactions with our software while the fully sighted remain with their eyeballs glued to their screens? In technology transfer terms, we can be as geeky as we like as “early adopters” while many software products are simple enough to master for those without a "geek streak”. This blog discusses many of these download-install-try and adopt or discard packages. We demonstrate that some added functionality here and a better interface there and, with practice, we can remain cost effectively fully functioning in the networked world.

What else does podcasting have to offer vision losers? While we are using podcasts to learn about technology to exploit our partial sight, we hear the inspiring words of Vision Losers like us, across a spectrum of losses. More than that, we can see how podcasts can fill the information voids caused by difficulty reading print magazines and newspapers. We will find a generation of communicators, both younger and older, using podcasts to develop a style and outlets for their cultural, humor, and intellectual interests. The early podcasters are entrepreneurial, energetic, and often fresh figures to replace TV fixtures and columnists we may have been using for years to structure our own views of the world.

Aren’t we lucky so many independent and creative individuals offer us a new way to explore and absorb a very wide world beyond our screens and speakers? We will find that podcasting offers a way to design your own stream of content geared toward your own information and entertainment needs and time available. And it is amazing how much more you can get done listening to podcasts than watching a tube or unfolding and refolding a newspaper?

Aren’t we lucky, that we have a medium so well matched to our needs, so flexible, and so cheap?

We began this blog by describing a PC environment that may help many Vision Losers with little expense or effort, namely a few synthetic voices, an application, that reads from the clipboard, and the minimal functionality of magnifiers supplied by the Microsoft XP (and other) Windows environments with an add-on mouse. We have also been using podcasts as references in earlier articles, just requiring a PC invoked with the click of a link to a .mp3 player. We’ll soon move on to harder trade-offs with other screen readers, editors, and podcatchers that bring out a tendency to collect podcasts.

No, it is not great to be a Vision Loser; in fact, it’s a very hard life with more of the same and worse for life’s remaining decades. But, really, the confluence of assistive technology, opening of independent media through podcasting and blogs, and the challenge to learn and use these as rapidly as possible during vision descent leads to the significant conclusion: Contemporary Vision Losers have timed their transition well to take advantage of technology never before available, not robbing the bank account, and poised to become one more node in a vast network of audio driven information and human connection.

As we write this blog we draw from a library of podcasts collected on vision-related topics and by and for blind and partially sighted individuals. Check this out in the blogroll and
@Podder Eyesight Podcast Library

Listen to an audio version of this posting

Mouse Hacks, Magnifiers, and Being Your Own System Integrator

In this post, we look for ways to reduce the costs of our computing environment as we deal with vision loss. Magnifiers are helpful, sometimes essential, and, we show, can be very low-cost with additional benefits.

Assistive Technology (abbreviated AT) software comes in several cost categories: built-in, $0, $50, $500, and $1000. The “big AT” vendors sell to individuals, of course, but the main market is the IT and A.D.A. support organizations of government agencies and employers, i.e. the “budgets”. I claim that an independent Vision Loser can save by becoming a System Integrator of sorts avoiding not only costs of acquiring “Big AT”, but also reducing complexity of installation, maintenance, and training.

Here’s a little case study in System Integration, First, some caveats: I am neither a trained rehab/AT specialist nor an experienced System Integrator. But I did go to conference with these types and have assembled a library of podcasts and web articles with excellent advice.

What we are calling a “System Integrator” is someone who looks at how components work individually and composes a new “system” where the components work together to achieve a goal. With the uncertainty of progressive vision loss, a worthy goal is frequently a kind of testbed to experiment with techniques that compensate for vision deficiencies and offer a measure of comfortable use. Experimental results may lead to identification of a suitable product or provide experience for evaluating more costly alternatives.

Here’s our goal: low-cost magnification capabilities for a Windows XP computing system. The underlying problem is for this Vision Loser to have available screen magnification when needed to complement self-voicing and screen reading software (a future post). I really want to know both what is (1) necessary and (2) sufficient to meet my vision needs, keeping mind that needs will change as vision changes. Change is as much daily, even hourly, variation as slower deterioration.

Well, how about that! Microsoft accessibility software includes a simple stationary magnifier with several levels of magnification and inversion of screen colors. Stationary means it doesn’t follow the mouse and it can be docked at one of the borders so it doesn’t move around. Indeed, I found I liked a stationary magnifier set to level 2, inverted, and docked at the top. The down-side is vertigo from the magnifier tracking the mouse. So, Only time and trial would show its sufficiency.

Enter the “{mouse”. and yes, we were talking about magnifiers, not pointers, or vermin! On a trip to a computer store, I decided to pick up a new wrist rest and a more comfortable mouse. By sheer luck, my niece shopper assistant pointed out a mouse with a magnifier. At home, I discovered that this little guy really is useful. It provides a “tracking” magnifier to complement the stationary Windows lens, again within levels of magnification and resize of the tracking box. Now, with a flick of an extra side button on the mouse, up came a magnifier aimed at the text I want to read. The product model is called a Microsoft Laser Mouse 5000, but these names and model numbers may have changed.

But, wait, what about the extra button capabilities that come with the mouse. Only the right side button, an extra sliver, is being used, to pop up the tracking magnifier. Wow, I have these other tools that read to me when I copy text to the clipboard (see previous post). I wonder if I can link these two. Indeed, the left side mouse button can be assigned to Select All and the Wheel button to Copy. Now with two clicks, I can hear a window of text. Cool! This save fumbling around the keyboard for Control-A then Control-C or a couple of trips down a context menu.

This is what computing folk call a “hack”, a clever way to get a job done, maybe not obvious or elegant but definitely effective. Indeed” OReilly Press has raised “hack” to a publishing genre, with piles of books that collect, explain, and propagate hacks for Amazon, Google, podcasting, even mental productivity.

There are always trade-offs in any system design. The first is that a solution only works if you remember to use it! That use must become part of your reflex repertoire But then you’re in trouble on a different computing system at a friend’s office or on a consulting gig. I forgot my mouse on a recent trip and walked over to a Staples to get a replacement, a smaller notebook mouse with a single side button magnifier. It worked right out of the box, but getting the thing released from its hard plastic covering required 2 hotel clerks and some dangerous instruments. Then, I really noticed the loss of select-copy functionality as I struggled under fluorescent lights and a nasty wireless security system. Further, to make my hack work, the Windows security system had to permit copy to clipboard, which many IT departments like to over-ride.

What if I want or need more magnification? Software like ZoomText is widely used (I hear from podcasts) and is designed especially for partially sighted people. A trial use early in my vision loss showed how many ways graphics could be adjusted to achieve magnification and contrast effects, with the primary benefit crisper text at higher levels of magnification Indeed, vision is so complicated – is it color, contrast, glare, font, or other factors that are most crippling to a particular Vision Loser? And, my vision changes so much, with lighting conditions, time of day, cumulative exposure, and who knows what other factors. In any case, the $500+ price tag was out of my budget at the time of trial.

What is the System Integration lesson? In “computational thinking” terms, we look for abstract interfaces of components, primarily their inputs and outputs. We don’t worry about the buttons or the user interface or menus but focus on the generic capability. In this example, the system clipboard is a (hidden) input to TextAloud (or similar tool that monitors the clipboard) and our MS Laser Mouse has a (hidden) output to copy selected text to the clipboard. Well, duh, the clipboard pervades Windows applications, but now we have endowed it with text-to-speech reading capabilities. We’ve wrapped a different way of thinking about the united capabilities of two separate components – a text reader application and a mouse.

When you put yourself in System Integrator mode, you ask: what’s my inventory of components? what are their abstract interfaces? how can I connect these applications together? How much complexity is added to my system by now having inter-linked components, e.g. when one is upgraded? What forms of training are now required, including getting used to, learning the foibles of, and gaining reflex control over the new capability? How do my solutions compare with each other and what are the trade-offs? Is there a show-stopper against or in favor of a particular solution?

One of the most serious lessons of the Software Engineering field, where I formerly taught, is the importance of getting the requirements right early on. That usually is not possible in our Vision Loser world, but rather we need to set up an experimental testbed where we can try out different ways of compensating for vision loss. Necessary and sufficient are always concerns, e.g. an expensive solution may be sufficient but not necessary while a low-cost solution may be necessary for some uses but insufficient for others.

Readers of this posting might be wondering: why not ask an expert? Well, I don’t have one handy, have never had computer rehab support from an employer or agency, and, frankly, have already had some unsatisfactory experiences with consumer low vision businesses. But really the experts are out there, telling me much good advice on podcasts and in accessibility publications. Thanks to them.

helpful podcasts and articles:

Access World comparison of magnification products
http://www.afb.org Search (upper corner) for “Zoomtext, MAGIC, magnifiers”

Barrier-Free IT Tips and Tricks podcast on the Windows Accessibility Wizard

Literacy Questions for Magnification, Karen McCall from Carlin Communications
(link to be found)

OReilly “Hacks” Series http://www.hackszine.com

Microsoft Laser Mouse search for “Microsoft Laser Mouse” and “on screen magnifiers”

What’s a print-disabled reader to do? Bookshare!

What’s a print-disabled reader to do?! Bookshare!

This Vision Loser is especially grateful to Bookshare, a “Technology for Society” project of Benetech, at http://www.bookshare.org.
A podcast from Disability411 provides an excellent overview of Bookshare from the perspectives of a disability professional and Bookshare staff.
First, the bad stuff. After years of living under an eyesight prognosis of “precarious, but stable”, battling lighting conditions, driving to then being driven to the library to pick up and return books on CD, and piling up unread newspapers and magazines, I finally lost the last sliver of central vision that gave me print contrast. The “smudges” won. So, what do I do with my library of pleasure and technical books? How do I get my reading fix, my world and local news, my curiosity-driven tutorials? It turned out to be harder to get rid of books than to rebuild my library and reading habits.

Bookshare was my life raft in a swirling sea of change. In a nutshell, new members register, pay $75, get their eye specialist to fill out a form certifying print disability, and then learn their way around the Bookshare website. Find a book they like, then download it to their PC, unpack it (like “unzip”), and read the book using PC software distributed by Bookshare or other readers of DAISY files, a Digital Talking Book format. Other use cases include conversion to mp3 format, e.g. using a tool like TextAlound (previous post) and natural voices. These books are just marked-up text files, not audio, so “turning pages” and speaking requires synthetic voices and special software.

While I found an abundance of books I wanted to read, being tethered to a PC was slowing me down. with some web searching for “DAISY readers”, I found the American Printing House for the Blind Bookport. Now I could download the books onto a mobile device and listen anywhere with ear buds. The Bookport is truly ugly, nothing but a panel of buttons and an older style male voice, “Precise Pete”, to read the books. Book Port Transfer software uses a USB cable to download the DAISY books, slowly, and can also load up the Bookport with converted mp3, Word, HTML, and .txt files. Using the training cassette and on-board help file, I quickly learned how to navigate books, adjust voices, mark spots of interest, move files around, and, most important, change the batteries. Built for the totally blind, the Bookport is better used by the partially sighted without looking, by memory in your finger-tips. Indeed, Bookport is great for reading in bed, equipped with sleep timer and a recorder to journal dreams, but with the dangers of strangler ear buds and night-time prowls for new batteries. Actually, battery life is great, over 40 hours with 2 AA easy replacements.

So, now I had over a hundred books queued up on Bookport, was listening to New York Times best sellers every week, finding new authors and new books by favorite authors on every trip to the Bookshare website, culling through some self-help books in the Disability-related category, and trying to unload boxes of my publisher-supplied course texts on a local university.

Could life get any better? Yes, along comes the Icon PDA from Levelstar with its newsstand, search, and bookshelf all linked directly to Bookshare. Give the Icon your password and browse the Levelstar server version of the Bookshare catalog, download and unpack in one swift action (literally, just seconds),and now I could rebuild my library more deliberately and with less energy expended. I wasn’t comfortable reading books on the more expensive and fragile Icon, so I batch download books every two weeks from the Icon to the PC disk, then over to Bookport, and redistribute to proper directories in its file systems. This script is a good example of where System Integration is required to achieve a goal, here reading comfort.

Since I don’t want to load up on books I don’t intend to read (already done that for decades), I carefully picked topics, tried to find the best sources, used book referrals from newspapers, podcasts, and radio shows. Now I have a library I’d be truly proud to show anyone, but I can’t because it’s all in the little black Bookport and under constraints from Bookshare. Oh, well, I’ll just have to show friends my knowledge.

What a boost to self-esteem as well as enjoyment of reading! I sadly read my way through six books on the Iraq war to identify where I believed things went wrong, and have explained that point in several discussions. I once heard a book review on the WAMU Diane Rehm show and immediately downloaded the book from Bookshare, and once had an emailed question answered about a book I’m now reading. I’ve found many of the technical books contributed by Reilly Press useful for my technical interests in web design and programming. Of course, not every needed book is available but I often find an adequate substitute in the 35000 book collection.

OK, I gain greatly from Bookshare and try to pass on the benefits with friends and family, as a fully functioning member of the reading world. What do I give back to Bookshare? Members and volunteers are the sources of scanned books. My scanning shop works but a few books showed me what grueling work it is, indeed, the Massachusetts penal system uses inmates to scan books for their educational system, as reported on a podcast from ACB (American Council of the Blind). I have contributed two books, one to honor former Governor Ann Richards and another eloquent memoir by editor and ambassador Henry Grunwald. Bookshare dues are only $50 and they welcome donations of cash as well as clean digital copies of books.

The downsides? I found the website rather wordy and in need of overhaul and reported this in a Bookshare user group meeting held at CSUN (disability exhibit in LA in March). Another is the guilt factor that authors and publishers don’t get paid. There must be a good story back in 1996 when a legislator (Chafee?) got in an amendment to copyright law to allow print-disabled people like me limited use of digital versions of books.

The founder of Benetech and Bookshare is Jim Fruchterman , an assistive technology entrepreneur and social activist Recognized for his work by a MacArthur “genius” grant, his Benetech blog tells about his world travels, writings and new ventures.

Regarding my own former personal physical library, I have two regrets. First, I wish I’d begun using Bookcrossings to experience letting some of my favorites lose in the wild rather than boxed into the domiciles of a Friends of the Library shop. I also wish I’d completed my sorting out while I could still read covers and parts of books which is a cumbersome task with magnifiers or a teenage helper .

So, if you’re partially sighted and can fail the vision test, you win entry into a classy organization to keep you amply entertained and informed.

References and Links:

Bookshare http://www.bookshare.org
Benetech blog http://beneblog.blogspot.com
Podcast on Bookshare from Disability411 http://disability411.jinkle.com/show30.htm
OReilly Publishing http://www.oreilly.com
BookCrossings http://www.bookcrossing.com
DAISY Digital Talking Book alliance http://www.daisy.org

Bookport mobile reader ($400) http://www.aph.org
LevelStar Icon PDA ($1400) http://www.levelstar.com (check out the excellent training and demo podcasts)

A Simple, Low-Cost, Effective Reading Application

Simple Reading Applications

Let’s assume you can find your way around a screen through a combination of vision, memory, keyboarding, and mousing but can’t read much of the text in documents you access. Is there a low-cost Windows application to read the text for you?

Yes, lots to choose from. Search for the phrase “text-to-speech” and you’ll find advertisements and websites for freeware, shareware, and all kinds of products at less than $100. This blog article is for beginner Vision Losers as well as those looking for alternatives to higher cost assistive technology products.

My main reader for years is TextAloud from http://www.nextup.com, which I’ll discuss as a representative of this class of desktop applications. Some use cases are:

1) In order to read a .txt file on your disk, you open the file for TextAloud to speak it to you. Ditto for .doc, .pdf, and other standard formats.

2) While browsing you find a page you can’t read in screen font form. You click the TextAloud toolbar to read the page in a voice and at a rate you choose.

3) You just do not feel like sitting straight-up with your eyeballs glued to your screen to read a long document. You copy the text to the clipboard, which TextAloud monitors for changes and then reads the text to you.

4) You want a bunch of files in audio form for an MP3 player. Open the files in TextAloud to convert to mp3 format and save in a directory for downloading.

5) You’re editing a document and want to hear how it sounds for tone, style, and mistakes. Beyond audio editing, maybe you’d like to compare male and female sounding voices to see how your writing is perceived by gender-wired brains. Open or copy the draft into TextAloud, choose voices, and listen to your writing as if being narrated.

In other words, TextAloud is a simple word processor with special features for reading the text to you or converting text to mp3 (or WAY) format to be read on another device. One piece of Windows magic is the “copy to clipboard” which transfers text to TextAloud for optional immediate reading.

And, it’s so helpful to have TextAloud right in your browser. Depending on versions and types of browsers, you can have TextAloud as a up there with Search, Favorites, History, etc.. Simply select text to read, wave your mouse over to the easily seen button, click “Speak”, and text is read, even if the desktop application is not loaded. But, wait, there’s more, a bonus zoom plus and minus to avoid a trip into the menus to change text size. As long as you can see the toolbar buttons, text-to-speech is just a click away.

Uh, oh, I’m starting to sound like a commercial here, but my point is simple: this particular product in the low-cost text-to-speech application space performs a lot of functions your vision may not be able to handle.

Really, synthetic voices are a miraculous technology that enables your brain to understand text as if human-read. Older, i.e. 1990ish voices, the ones built into Windows, sound robotic while newer voices are “natural” derived from slices of human speech. We’ll explore these more in a future posting, including fascinating studies about how our brains are socially biased in their speech wiring. Listen to sample readings on an informative and vision-friendly podcast, Allison Sheridan’s NosillaCast at http://www.podfeet.com

TextAloud can be purchased with a bundle of voices which sell individually for around $30. Yes, indeed, buy yourself a choir of male-female, old or young, American-Brit accented voices for a variety of listening experiences. Beware if you are low on GB of disk space as these voice data files are large, upwards of 200 MB to 800 MB. Get to know Kate and Paul, Mike and Crystal, Ray, Claire, Alex, and their developers at RealSpeak, NeoSpeech, ViaVoice, Microsoft, Cepstral, and the home grounds at ATT Labs.

OK, here’s the down-sides of this product. It comes with “skins” to change its look, but they are all way too bright for my photo-receptors so only the No-skin look is available, but it can be customized for font size and color. I like Ariel, size 14 or 16. White or Yellow on a Dark Blue background. Another problem is that opening a Microsoft Word file means suffering template and installation messages as Word itself is opened, and, no, I can’t take it back to the former employer I got it from .For my eyesight and keyboard skills, a drop-down box listing the currently active files is confusing and hard to use. But none of these are show-stoppers nor any worse than other products.

Other applications I’ve used with satisfaction for similar tasks, especially the “read from clipboard” function, are CoolSpeech from http://www.bytecool.com and ACE-HIGH from http://www.textreader.net/ Unfortunately, CoolSpeech ran afoul of my virus checking software and lost its clipboard functionality. This blog post isn’t a product review but here’s one Disability Professional’s product assessment from Beth Case at Disability411 podcast #YYY at URL.

As both a visually impaired user and a software developer myself, I’ve noticed one significant difference among applications in their model of handling multiple requests for readings coming from browsers and other apps copying to the clipboard TextAloud uses a Blocking model, where any request to reads is rejected until the current is done, with an accompanying beep if desired. CoolSpeech uses a sequential reading model where requests are queued and read to completion, one after another. ACE HIGH uses an Interruption model where a read may not completed with new requests starting immediately. Your satisfaction with a product may depend on how well your usage profile matches its read sequencing model.

One final note of warning is that all the voices and applications I’ve tried are easily over-loaded by multiple requests or voice changes, starting to slow down, stop, or speak at the same time, or otherwise babble. TTS isn’t perfect but works amazingly well.

So, here’s a type of desktop application, and one particular satisfied customer for one leading product that Vision Losers can consider. In our theme of “As Your World Changes”, you may find tools like this necessary and/or sufficient some days, or in some lighting situations. With a modest investment in software and voice data files, you now have a classy interface for reading on your PC or mp3 or CD players. Of course, sighted people can use these tools also, but often seem, in our terminology, to be happy with “their eyeballs glued to their screens”, or printed pages, reading the old-fashioned way. Visually impaired people are sometimes the early adopters of technologies like these and go through an evolutionary phase of learning to listen in order to survive in an information-rich world.

Check these out:

Voice samples in NoscillaCast #102 and #103 at http://www.podfeet.com. Other assistive technology information, also.

Disability Professional’s take on many low-cost assistive technology products http://disability411.jinkle.com/show23.htm

TextAloud product from http://www.nextup.com

CoolSpeech product from http://ww.bytecool.com

ACE HIGH Text-to-Speech from http://www.textreader.net.

Future blog articles: “Wired for Speech” book and studies by Stanford professor Clifford Nass; “synthetic voices all around”, co-evolving with humans; high-and-low cost screen readers; how applications speak.


Welcome to a blog about the transition of losing some functions of eyesight and how computing technology can broaden our world of information, entertainment, and relationships. Most people who lose eyesight due to aging, disease, or accident retain significant function but face complex adjustments in their everyday activities. The world of “partial sight” is very different from the worlds of the fully sighted and the fully blind both because vision is often highly variable with continual trade-offs of using retained eyesight and assistive technology.

“As Your World Changes” seeks to draw out information from partially sighted people recently or currently adjusting to loss of vision, and for those anticipating changes, as well as those concerned with disability issues for personal or professional reasons.

I’m a Vision Loser from myopic retinal degeneration with major print disability but sufficient retained eyesight to read what I’m typing at the moment in a specially contrived computing setup developed after much trial-and-error with software and hardware ranging from very expensive to low-cost through free or built-in. One purpose of this blog is to share my “What Works” lessons and learn from the experience of like-abled others.

Another theme of this blog is that we recent Vision Losers are really lucky that we now have a cornucopia of gadgets, voices, and new media to enrich our lives and help overcome the difficulties of vision loss. Notably, as we will show, the medium of podcasting can significantly replace much print reading for news and entertainment. Indeed, the Visually Impaired world is highly accessible via podcasts for new Vision Losers to learn about products, services, organizations, and personalities you never knew you needed to know about.

Here’s a sample of topics to be covered in future blog postings:

exploiting built-in Windows accessibility; many ways of getting applications to read to you; zooming and magnification the ladder of screen readers, options; typing and editing your writing; downloading, listening to, and collecting podcasts; understanding computer use errors and their corrections; assessing the credibility and value of product information; becoming a system integrator. First topic: TextAloud from nextup.com, an all-around, low-cost, useful text reader.
Innovators, personalities, heroes, and helpers — people who write about their vision loss; technologists behind important products and services; consumer and activist organizations and leaders; people living with vision loss, … Also activism – currency, voting, web services, documents, , and other technology to be improved. First topic: Bookshare.org and its founder Jim Fruchterman.

feelings, and wild card topics — this Vision Loser’s framework of safety, energy management, relationships, appreciation, and practical concerns; lessons from Vision Loser authors; cures, promises, and hopefulness; … Social justice issues of accessible currency, voting, mobility, … The investment cycle of entitlement, empowerment, and luxury. First topic: “This Vision Loser’s 5-Level Philosophy: safety, energy, relationships, appreciation, finance/citizenry”.

Readers who find this blog, please comment to share your experiences and questions. Also, check out the informative podcast links that expand our discussions.