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Chapter 2: Various Assistive Technologies

Screen Readers – programs that render information from the screen

Enlargement Programs – Magnify what otherwise cannot be seen

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) Software and Scanners – the Key to Printed Information

Video Magnifiers (CCTVs) enlarge everything that is “in their way”

Electronic Notetakers that write information without using paper

Braille Displays – reveal any information from the screen onto the Braille display, right under the fingers.

Braille Embossers— will turn even the most complicated text into dots

Screen Readers – programs that render information from the screen

Screen readers are programs primarily designed for blind people. Their function, therefore, is to access and read information from the screen. Over the years, screen readers have undergone major improvements and have been adjusted to the graphical interface of the Windows operating system. They not only read information written in a document that contains simple text, but also read tables, spreadsheets, and emails. In fact, the most commonly used Microsoft applications - Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Outlook - are easily accessible with screen readers. Screen reader users can now perform most of the functions as quickly as people who do not use screen readers.

For screen readers, the foreground and the background colors of a document do not matter. The program will read large white letters on a black background with the same speed and accuracy as small dark blue letters on a black background. It can even read black letters on a black background, since it does not rely on the information that the sighted people see on the screen, but rather on the information that is provided internally by the software. However, screen readers can read text attributes, such as font style, font size, and font color. It is not necessary to avoid these attributes when a document is given to a screen reader user.

Screen readers come with a variety of voices from which to choose. They can be adjusted to read at a particular speed or to read with a certain pitch or inflection. At one time they read through an external speech synthesizer, now largely replaced and updated by software speech synthesizers which work with a soundcard and a pair of headphones or speakers. The transition from the external speech synthesizer to the sound card has been a significant advancement - one that has helped minimize the gap between blind and sighted computer users. While in the past a screen reader user had had to ensure that any computer he intended to use had an external speech synthesizer, it is now possible for him to use almost any computer at any workplace or educational institution, since most computers are equipped with a soundcard. Many also include a set of speakers. Users can carry a pair of headphones from station to station, in case no speakers are available or in case they work with people who require a quiet working environment and do not wish to be disturbed by a voice coming from speakers.

Currently, the most popular screen readers are JAWS for Windows by Freedom Scientific, WindowEyes by GW Micro, and Hal by Dolphin Systems.

Enlargement Programs – Magnify what otherwise cannot be seen

Screen enlargement programs, also called magnification software programs, are designed for computer users who are low vision. Their function is mainly to magnify the screen, because the assumption is that the intended users have enough vision to read information from the screen. In recent years, however, in addition to magnification, the most commonly used screen enlargement programs give users the option of reading text from the screen. The reading capabilities of these programs are not as advanced as those of screen readers, so it is not advisable to use a magnification program to satisfy the needs of a screen reader user. Since the premise is that a low vision user can see the screen, as long as it is magnified, reading capabilities are quite limited and not as reliable.

What is valuable in a good magnification software program is the quality of magnification (the more the screen is magnified, the more the quality tends to deteriorate), the option to set various colors for the mouse and for the Windows interface (i.e. some users may prefer to have a dark background and light letters), and tracking (the focus has to change as a user moves on the screen). In other words, if a text is typed, the magnification software has to move along the screen and enable the user to see what he is typing. This becomes extremely important when a higher magnification is used. When a user sets the magnification to 2x, this movement may still be of minor importance, because most of the screen is visible. But when magnification is raised to 4x or 6x, the user can see only a fraction of the screen. We will return to this subject in Chapter 4 when we focus on methods to teach blind and low vision people the proper use of these technologies.

Some of the features of magnification software programs may not work correctly in certain applications, especially in those less commonly used. They will, in the vast majority of cases, perform their major function without fail: they will magnify the screen. They can be installed on any computer, with any fonts, including Chinese characters, Cyrillic, Greek or Arabic characters and, even though they may fail to read them, they will still enlarge them. The most commonly used magnification software programs are ZoomText by AiSquared, Lunar/Lunar Plus and SuperNova by Dolphin Systems, and Magic by Freedom Scientific.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) Software and Scanners – the Key to Printed Information

Optical Character Recognition software, commonly called OCR software, is designed for people who are blind or low vision. The software works with a scanner that recognizes a text and displays it on a screen. In addition to interfacing with the scanner, the software allows the user to read the scanned material. It comes with built-in features of a screen reader and magnification software, so it can function even if no additional software (either a screen reader or an enlargement software) is installed. Its screen reader is advanced enough not only to read the scanned text but also to change various options within the program. Low vision users can magnify the scanned text, change its color, its font and its spacing.

Despite the fact that the main function of OCR programs is to recognize the scanned text and display it on the screen, these programs now include several additional options such as sending/receiving faxes or photocopying pages. The most popular OCR software programs are OpenBook by Freedom Scientific, K9000 by Kurzweil, and Cicero by DolphinSystems.

Video Magnifiers (CCTVs) enlarge everything that is “in their way”

Video Magnifiers, also called CCTVs, are devices designed for people who are low vision. Their main function is to magnify any text or image, literally anything that is put under their lens, to such a level of magnification that it is comfortable to see or read.

There are three main categories of CCTVs: the large, stand-alone units, the portable units that come in backpacks or suitcases, and the small portable units that are designed to be carried in a pocket or purse. The first category of CCTV is especially recommended for libraries and other places where a lot of reading is required. They come with big monitors and comfortable tables on which any book (thin or thick) can be placed.

The portable units in backpacks or suitcases are lighter and smaller, and naturally have smaller screens. Their primary advantage is that they are not as bulky as the stand-alone units and thus can be easily transported to classrooms, coffee shops, parks, airplanes, the beach, almost anywhere one needs to go. They come with batteries and can be used in places where no plugs are available.

The smallest CCTVs that have appeared recently on the market are designed to replace standard magnifiers. They are light like magnifying glasses, but they have a better, brighter light that helps to read the magnified text in places where light is scarce, i.e. reading menus in restaurants, reading train schedules at night, etc.

CCTVs, in addition to magnifying the image, have other options that help people read the magnified text. They come with black and white colors only, for people who do not like or cannot distinguish colors, or with a variety of color selections (i.e. red letters on a black background, blue letters on a yellow background) for people who rely on various color selections for a better visual contrast. It is important to allow the user the chance to select the color combination that works best for him. What often seems like a strange combination for a sighted person may be best for the low vision CCTV user.

The larger, bulky CCTVs came on the market first, then appeared the portable devices, and finally the most recent small devices, so small that they can be carried in a pocket or purse. It will be interesting to see what will happen in the coming years with this trend towards smaller and smaller devices with new and improved options.

The most popular CCTVs are manufactured by Telesensory, Tieman, PulseData, and AshTechnology.

Electronic Notetakers that write information without using paper

The purpose of electronic notetakers has gone greatly beyond simple note taking, maintaining the address book and using the calculator, the alarm and the timer. Similar to personal digital assistants (PDA’s), they are now specially designed for people who are blind or low vision. Depending on the manufacturer, their specific functions may vary, but in general they now have an interface similar to that of a computer. If a person knows how to use a computer, he will no longer need to spend time learning how to use a notetaker.

Like PDAs, notetakers allow users to type their documents and then transfer them to the computer or to another user of a similar notetaker or of a PDA via the infrared port. Users can also browse the internet, check email, and use the GPS (General Positioning System) which gives them directions to a given place. They can also play music or read any text recorded in the MP3 format. Some notetakers even have a cell phone capability, such that users are able to both write and receive text messages, just like sighted cell phone users.

Notetakers are divided into two categories: with Braille keyboard and the qwerty keyboard. The Braille keyboard tends to be smaller, since it only contains seven main keys (six Braille dots and a space bar) plus some additional function keys, while the qwerty keyboard is a “regular” keyboard that consists of 26 letters, plus additional characters, digits and function keys. The Braille keyboard is designed for users who are proficient in Braille; the qwerty keyboard is designed for those users (blind or low vision) who prefer to type on a keyboard that is similar to a computer keyboard.

Many low vision users have complained that they would like to be able to see what they are typing. Some manufacturers, therefore, have been working on a notetaker with a small display to accommodate the needs of those users. The most commonly used notetakers to date are the PacMate by Freedom Scientific, the BrailleNote by PulseData, and the MPO 5500 by ALVA.

Braille Displays – reveal any information from the screen onto the Braille display, right under the fingers.

Braille displays are designed for people who are proficient in Braille. They take information from the screen and translate it into Braille. A Braille display user gets access not only to text (in regular text documents, in tables, in spreadsheets), but also to font attributes, such as font style, font size, font color, etc. The user can, literally, feel the formatting changes in the document under his fingers. When the TAB key is pressed, for instance, to indicate the beginning of the paragraph, the user will feel a few blank spaces before he encounters the text. Formatting of complex documents, therefore, may be easier to do with Braille displays than with a screen reader, because the user can feel the format changes in the document, rather than just hear about them. Braille displays are especially useful when a user works with many special characters, i.e. math signs or programming code. The user can read the edited document on the Braille display, just like a sighted persons can read their documents on a computer screen or on a printed page, rather than rely on listening to it through the screen reader.

Braille displays must be used in conjunction with a screen reader. They come with various navigation keys, i.e. an option to scroll through the screen - something similar to whiz wheels of a mouse. This enables faster navigation on the entire screen.

The availability of portable Braille displays is on the increase. There are already available portable units that come in a small suitcase and can be taken to school or on a business trip and connected to any desktop or laptop computer. They have also been an integrated part of many notetakers. The user can then either use speech or the Braille display, or both.

Braille Embossers— will turn even the most complicated text into dots

Braille embossers are printers that print in Braille. It is not necessary to know Braille in order to print in Braille. The idea is to create a regular document, i.e. in Microsoft Word, and print it. However, there is an additional step: the document has to be printed not from a Microsoft application, but from a Braille translation program. The program is sometimes included with the Braille embosser; sometimes it has to be purchased separately. It can be used by both blind and sighted users. The task of the program is to translate the text of a document into Braille. This may sound like a complicated task, but it is done automatically by the program. The user’s task is to ensure that the format of the document looks fine after the translation, much like one might look at “Print Preview” before printing a document in Microsoft Word. A sighted person who knows Braille should look at the printed document to ensure its quality.

Braille embossers are also designed to print graphs and graphics in raised dots, so that a blind person can feel them on paper.

The most commonly used Braille embossers are produced by Index and by Enabling Technologies.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Assistive Technology

Chapter 3: Basic Principles and Ergonomics

Chapter 4: Teaching People Who are Blind or Low Vision

Chapter 5: How do Blind/Vision Impaired Users Benefit from the internet

Chapter 6: Accessible Web Design

Chapter 7: Overbrook Resources

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