Sunday, March 12, 2000

Desktop system begins with basics

Add magnification or Braille features

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Last summer, I wrote a column about portable note takers used by blind and visually impaired people to take notes, keep electronic calendars and phone directories, and read files from computer disks. (Aug. 8 column)

        Many readers have asked that I tell the “rest of the story” — that is, tell what sort of desktop system I — and others unable to read print — use for word processing, maintaining databases, accessing the Internet, or reading print materials. Possibilities in the field of assistive technology are broad, but I'll describe my own desktop system and some of the basic options available.

Basic tools
        Blind and visually impaired people start with the same computer components purchased anywhere. Since there are more “access” products available for PCs than Macintosh systems, this discussion will focus on a typical Pentium II or III with Windows, Microsoft Word, and Internet Explorer. With those basic tools as a starting point, “access” products are then added to facilitate actually reading what appears on the computer screen.

        There are three ways of making the computer monitor's information available to a person with limited vision: Screen magnification, synthe sized speech, or refreshable (sometimes called paperless) Braille displays.

        With screen magnification software, characters on the screen can be magnified up to 20 times original size for easier viewing. Colors and degrees of contrast can also be adjusted to accommodate varying visual conditions. For example, one person might be more able to see the printed characters if black appears on a white background, while others can only interpret white on a black background. A larger monitor allows more enlarged characters to appear at once, which can speed up the reading process.

        One such program, called ZoomText, offers either the basic program (which enlarges characters) or ZoomText Extra, which simultaneously enlarges while speaking the text aloud through the system's sound card.

Synthesized speech
        The most popular (and least expensive) form of access used by visually impaired people is synthesized speech. Two widely used programs, JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes, use special software to “read” all screen text and screen prompts through the sound card or additional piece of hardware called a speech synthesizer.

        My own primary access tool is an 80-cell refreshable Braille display called an Alva. This flat box supports my keyboard, extending somewhat beyond it on all four sides, and sports a strip of Braille cells at the front from which I read all text occurring on my screen. Electromagnetic pins move up and down as I arrow through text, thus “refreshing” the Braille display with new text at whatever pace necessary. Above each Braille cell is a “cursor routing” dot which, when pressed, brings the cursor precisely to that point for editing.

        Whether using magnification, speech, or Braille for screen access, special access software must be configured to function in cooperation with the off-the-shelf products. This is particularly complicated when navigating Windows screens with speech or Braille.

Computer babble
        Visiting a Web site for the first time, for example, where text tags have not been added to visually interesting links, will lead a speech synthesizer to babble incessantly “Image. Image. Image.” Without text to interpret, a Braille display will similarly flash, in dots, the word “image” or “graphic” repeatedly, thus rendering the page useless and without meaning.

        On a good day, though, with no graphically based mysteries thrown my way, I use my computer to read news stories from the Internet, exchange e-mails, write articles for electronic submission, and read print documents (courtesy of a scanner with special optical character recognition software).

        There is no special keyboard, but blind people use the keyboard to a much greater extent than most sighted peers. Using a mouse is an entirely visual skill, so those of us using speech or Braille access products must find keyboard equivalents for issuing the same commands sent by those little drags and clicks.

Simplified tour
        This is a simplified tour of pretty sophisticated technology. If you would like to learn more or obtain demo versions of software, contact the following Web sites:;;

        For individual evaluations or training, contact the Cincinnati Association for the Blind, 221-8558.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:


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