Accessible Technology in the 21st Century
|| a stanford sophomore college project ||




Software for users with disabilities can be divided into several categories. One is screen readers like JAWS and Home Page Reader, or built in ones like Narrator. These programs allow the computer to speak to the user to tell the user what is on a page. Another type of software is voice recognition like Dragon NaturallySpeaking and IBM ViaVoice, which allow a user to give input verbally to the computer not only for documents or writing, but also for giving commands. Other software is more focused on things like allowing a user to find out about the contents of a link, or helping students learn Java.


screen readers

One important type of software is screen readers which basically read what is on the screen out loud to you. Some of the different screen readers include Home Page Reader, JAWS, and VoiceOver. JAWS has over sixty five percent of the market share. JAWS, which can be downloaded from costs at least almost $900. JAWS is a Windows only program and one must have at least Windows 98. JAWS is mainly for browsing the web, but also works with Microsoft programs Word, Excel, and Outlook. Before someone wants to buy the program, one can download a 40 minute demo for free. If this is not enough, one can buy for about forty dollars a 60 day trial. If the user has Windows XP Pro, and not Home, only JAWS Pro will work, which costs almost two hundred dollars more than the standard program(B). One of the drawbacks to JAWS is that the commands are complex. There are several webpages with instructions on how to navigate using JAWS and all about the different commands. Many of these commands require the use of the “Home” or “Insert” keys which are not very accessible especially if the user is blind(C). Another big drawback, if one tries to type in a search into a search bar on say Google, many of the letter keys are also commands, so a user would have to disable some commands in order to be able to type in a search.

IBM developed Hope Page Reader for a few select applications, It is mainly a web browser, but also helps users with visual impairments use the Windows desktop, WordPad, Notepad, and a few others. Home Page Reader also helps make PDFs and Macromedia Flash pages accessible to those with visual disabilities. Another feature of Home Page Reader is that when reading a webpage, the program normally uses a male voice for the regular text but when a link is encountered, the program switches to a female voice(D).

Windows computers come with a program called Narrator which reads text, but does not seem as complex as some of the other screen readers. The help menu does give a list of topic, the first topic is not about what keys to use to get the program to read certain parts of pages or commands. The commands are fairly few but they require the use of some keys that one would have to move one’s hand to rather than ones that are easily accessible for someone who is touch typing For example, some require the use of the “Home” key which for a blind user could be quite difficult.

Macs also come with a built in screen reader called VoiceOver. This program is much more sophisticated than Narrator. Narrator only has one voice for which the user can change the pitch, speed of the voice, and volume. Yet VoiceOver has about a dozen different voices ­ young and old and male and female. Other features of VoiceOver include that on the Tiger OS, VoiceOver starts up with the computer the first time so that if a user is blind, the user can get VoiceOver to help them set up the computer. Another feature is that it is designed so that the user should not have to use a written guide but instead learns as one goes along what the keys do. All the commands seem to be the combination of Ctrl Option plus another key. This should make it simpler than JAWS where there are many different combinations of keys. VoiceOver also has a tool to help sighted users learn to use it so as to be able to teach others by darkening the screen so a sighted user cannot read what’s on the screen(E). Click here for the VoiceOver Keyboard commands.

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voice recognition

Another type of software is one that allows users to give commands verbally to the computer. Two of these are IBM ViaVoice and Dragon NaturallySpeaking which is the successor to Dragon Dictate. IBM ViaVoice has several different versions but they let you speak commands to the computer and can be used on applications such as Word, Messenger, surfing the web, etc. Both of these seem like they come with a built in dictionary but that these programs also learn as you use them, so that the longer you have used the program, the better and more accurate it becomes. They also store a large number of words in RAM to make them faster to access. According to PC Magazine, which compared the two programs, Dragon NaturallySpeaking was better than IBM. NaturallySpeaking started out after five minutes of use with an accuracy of around 95 percent, and later went to 99percent after running it for two hours. Meanwhile, ViaVoice started at 92 and then rose to 98.5percent. Microsoft also came out with similar software for Windows XP, but it’s accuracy was only 90-95percent. One good feature of ViaVoice and Dragon NaturallySpeaking is that the user does not have to tell the computer to switch from editing to commands, but the computer figures it out automatically. Another feature of ViaVoice is that the user can say “What can I say?” which will bring up a menu of different options that one speaks to the computer. Both ViaVoice and NaturallySpeaking learn as you go along, so overtime, they might perhaps perform even better than the 98.5 to 99 percent accuracy that the trials showed. It would probably be hard to get a hundred percent accuracy, but it seems like that is getting close. Another useful feature of ViaVoice is that the user can train the program to recognize and use abbreviations that are used when imimg others(F, G).

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One piece of software that has been developed in the last several years for students with visual disabilities is called JavaSpeak and was developed by several university computer science professors. JavaSpeak’s goal is to allow students who are blind to be able to be computer programmers by making it easier for them to program and make them more independent. In order to use JavaSpeak, one must have the program JAWS which is what actually speaks. It seems like JavaSpeak mainly interprets one’s code and then sends its interpretation on to JAWS which reads it out loud. One of the reasons why some of the more common screen readers would probably not be practical for using with computer programming is that it is not just a simple reading of the characters. When JavaSpeak encounters a ‘}’ that is the end of a loop, program, or if-else statement, it has to figure out which one it is and then says that it is the end of that loop, function, etc. JavaSpeak has to be able to communicate effectively the compile and run-time errors. In addition, the program has to be able to read the output, and this means probably switching to a new window. One of the problems with this could be that because it requires JAWS, it might get the kind of penetration because JAWS costs almost a thousand dollars. Before JavaSpeak, there was a program called EmacSpeak which would also read out code and allow visually impaired programmers to program. However, one of the differences is that JavaSpeak is specifically for teaching students to program, while EmacSpeak is more for programmers(A).

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other accessible software

Dolphin Computer Access produces Lunar, Lunar Plus, Supernova, and Hal software. Supernova can do just about everything that any of the other three can do. Hal seems to be more about speech and navigating webpages while Lunar seems to be more about magnifying pages. Hal is mostly a screen reader but it also will output Braille displays. Like JAWS, Hal leads the user through the installation process. Hal helps users navigate the web and other Windows software. Another feature of Hal is that the user doe not have to be using just one computer but can put their preferences on a network and thus be able to retrieve their preferences from a different computer. Hal also helps users create PowerPoint presentations (J, K).

Audio Enriched Links is a free software program that one can download for free but requires JAWS to run. The idea behind this is that for people with visual disabilities, rather than having to follow a link and then evaluate whether or not that page is useful, it will tell you a summary of page that a link goes to before one clicks on that link. This summary includes information on what the domain is in relation to the page that the user is currently on, title, “a collection of highlights from the first ten major elements on the page (e.g. headers, large fonts)”(L 4), and statistics about the page such as “number of paragraphs, images, links, forms, and tables”(L 4). Some tests have shown that when visually impaired people used Audio Enriched Links when given a task, they were able to stay more on track than those who did not use the program. One of the hard things for people with visual disabilities is that it can be hard for them sometimes to evaluate the context of a link, whether or not it will be what they want, especially when a link may be off to the side and the URL does not give much information as to what the link is about (L).

Java Sun has developed the Java Foundation Classes that help make programs written in Java more accessible by sort of being an intermediate between the program and a screen reader, or whatever program the user is using to assist them. Among the list of classes and functions is one that translates items that might not be recognized by these classes. In addition, there are classes that alert when a new window is created or closed. This way, if a window is opened but is not at the forefront, the screen reader for example can still alert the user that a new window has been opened. IBM has taken the Java Foundation Classes and is now using it to help them build programs that are more accessible. Another name for Java Foundation Classes is Swing(Q, R).

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