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OBS Publications

Overbrook School for the Blind Publications

Overbrook-Nippon Network

The articles featured below have been taken from the document "Getting Started" published by Overbrook School for the Blind (OBS), Philadelphia, USA (http://www.obs.org). Our sincere thanks to OBS for giving us the rights to publish the document on EnableAll.

These articles focus on assistive technology and major considerations that should be kept in mind while using assistive devices or teaching how they should be used.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Assistive Technology

Assistive technology, the term includes various devices or software programs that enable people to use modern-day devices that could not be used otherwise, or at least with any degree of efficiency.
Chapter 1: Introduction to Assistive Technology

Chapter 2: Various Assistive Technologies

Introduction of Various Assistive Technologies Devices and Software Programs
Chapter 2: Various Assistive Technologies

Chapter 3: Basic Principles and Ergonomics

This module intends to give parents and teachers a helping hand in supporting the learning process
Chapter 3: Basic Principles and Ergonomics

Chapter 4: Teaching People Who are Blind or Low Vision

Concepts related specifically to teaching computers to blind and low vision people
Chapter 4: Teaching People Who are Blind or Low Vision

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

Internet has to offer: email services, search engines, and discussion lists, guides and curricula for teachers and electronic libraries for students, where they can find thousands of books in the electronic format, to news and games
Chapter 5: How do Blind/Vision Impaired Users Benefit from ...

Chapter 6: Accessible Web Design

Creation of certain standards that would ensure that the websites are accessible with assistive technology
Chapter 6: Accessible Web Design

Chapter 7: Overbrook Resources

Helpful Resources Recommended by Overbrook
Chapter 7: Overbrook Resources

Chapter 6: Accessible Web Design

What is Accessible Web Design?

Giving meaningful names to Links

Labeling Graphics, Buttons and Form Fields

Choosing Contrasting Colors

What is Accessible Web Design?

Web pages vary not only in content, however, but also in design methods. Because of the vast number of web pages that exist and because of the fact that they have been designed in different countries, cultures and environments, it is difficult to impose a standard web design, just as it would be near impossible to impose a single architectural style across the world and abolish all others. What is possible is the creation of certain standards that would ensure that the websites are accessible with assistive technology, just as it is possible, or necessary, to follow certain rules in construction of houses, regardless of their architectural style, to ensure their safety. This chapter will not explain how to design web pages in general, but will focus on the concepts that one needs to keep in mind when designing a web site accessible for people with assistive technology.

Screen readers provide many features that allow a screen reader user to navigate most of the web pages quickly and efficiently. Screen readers, however, do not have any build-in intelligence to describe graphics to blind users or to add meaningful descriptions to links, in case they are not clear to users. This kind of descriptions has to be provided by a web page designer. If properly used, they will be picked up by the assistive technology and read to the screen reader users, or displayed on the Braille display.

A set of standards has already been developed, to help sighted web site designers develop web pages that are accessible for users of assistive technology. Various countries have adapted standards of an accessible web design. The U.S., for instance, has introduced a set of web (as well as software development and documentation) standards under the name of “Section 508.” The World Wide Web Consortium, consisting of the U.S. and most European countries have developed W3C standards, and the European Union has been working on their own standards. Despite the differences between these standards, their common goal is to make the web site design more uniform, and more accessible to the assistive technology. The most important standards to follow will be described in the two sections below.

Giving meaningful names to Links

Screen readers introduced various navigation methods on the Internet, in order to make the navigation faster. These methods are specifically designed for screen reader users, but in order for them to work, a proper design has to be followed. One of the most common issues, and a very easy one to take into consideration with designing web pages, is that of naming links.

On many web sites, it is common to see a text such as this: “Click here for more information about our services,” where the words “click here” are made into a link. It looks obvious to a sighted person, or to a screen reader user who is reading the entire contents of the page, and therefore is able, just like the sighted users, to figure out what to associate the text with. Reading the entire web page, however, may prove extremely long and cumbersome for the assistive technology users. While sighted people are able to easily skip over any information that they do not wish to read and get directly to the place on the web page which interests them, screen reader users would have to read the contents of the entire web page, hadn’t the screen readers been equipped with many navigation features.

One of the common screen reader features that enables a fast navigation on web sites is one which displays a list of links. When screen reader users press of certain shortcut key, a list of links on the currently viewed web page is displayed. The users can then go through the list of links, rather than go through the content of the entire page to find them. This is a very efficient way of getting to a link, provided that the link is clear to the users without having to read the context of the link.

When users bring up a list of links and one or more links say “click here,” the users can have difficulty figuring out where exactly “clicking here” will bring them. A better name for links, in this particular case, would be “click here for more information about our services” or simply “more information about our services.”

Labeling Graphics, Buttons and Form Fields

Graphics are any images that are posted on a web site. As mentioned earlier, screen readers cannot describe them to screen reader users, unless a description of a graphic is provided. When no description is provided, screen reader users will hear “graphic” or yet worse, “graphic” and the filename of the image. Once a description is provided, in the form of an alternative text, screen readers read the description to the screen reader users.

The same principle applies to buttons, which are used quite often on the Internet web sites. Typically, this is how a button looks like: [a screenshot of a button]. When they have no descriptions, called “labels” attached, screen readers recognize them as bottoms, but they cannot guess their purpose. They will, therefore, read them as “button.” Providing a meaningful label to the button helps screen reader users to differentiate between various buttons. It will read any labels that are provided, i.e. “OK button,” Cancel Button,” etc.

Finally, the same principle applies to form fields. Form fields are places where web site users are expected to choose from or write some kind of information. They may, for instance, be expected to choose an option from a variety of options. They may also be asked to fill out a form, i.e. to provide their personal information. If form fields are not properly labeled, screen readers will recognize the fields themselves, and will announce to the screen reader users something like “edit box” or a “list box,” but will not be able to guess what it pertains to, unless these items are labeled. Then, in edition to saying “edit box,” the screen reader will say “last name,” or “first name," etc.

It is important to keep in mind that labeling graphics, buttons, and form fields does not influence their appearance. All the labeled objects look exactly the same as they did before being labeled. The only noticeable difference is that when sighted users put their mouse pointer over the labeled graphics, they are able to see their descriptions. Buttons and form fields usually do not show the descriptions when a mouse pointer is placed over them.

Choosing Contrasting Colors

Enlargement software users will be able to see the information that the sighted people see, with the exception that it will be enlarged to a varying degree. What is most important, and specific to users who are low vision is their reliance on contrasting colors on the Internet web sites. While for sighted people it is possible to read light pink letters on a dark pink background, this may prove an impossibility for low vision users. It is, therefore, important to remember to choose colors that are contrasting, rather than those that blend into one another, when designing a web site.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Assistive Technology

Chapter 2: Various Assistive Technologies

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 7: Overbrook Resources

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

Chapter 4: Teaching People Who are Blind or Low Vision

Reading Information—the linear aspect

Teaching Blind People

Teaching Low Vision People

Reading Information—the linear aspect

When sighted computer users view the screen, they immediately see everything that is currently displayed. For instance, they may see several windows open and position themselves side by side; the time, usually displayed on the bottom right corner of the screen, may appear; the green START button may appear in the lower left corner of the screen. When low vision or blind people look at the same screen, and they use any type of assistive device, i.e. screen readers, magnification software, or Braille displays, they can see the same information, but in smaller portions. They cannot get the view of the full screen; rather, they need to focus on its separate parts. In other words, no matter how many pieces of information are visible on the screen for sighted users, blind people will not read or view all of these pieces simultaneously, even with assistive technology. If there is a window on the left and another window on the right side of the screen, assistive technology will focus first on one window, then on the other. All the information from the screen, regardless of its position, is read in a linear form. Having the opportunity to view the whole screen versus having to read or view it linearly is one of the major differences between the way sighted people and people who have to rely on assistive technology receive the information on the screen.

When people browse the Internet with a screen reader, for instance, they will not be able to see the screen in the same way sighted people will. Sighted people are able to see the following elements at once: blue title bar on the top of the screen, with the name of their Internet browser; a menu bar, which contains items such as “file,” “edit,” “view,” “favorites,” etc; toolbars with pictures of various options; a browser window where web sites are displayed; a status bar, which often says “ready” or “done” or shows a picture of how much of a page still has to be downloaded; and a bar at the bottom of the screen, which is there most of the time no matter which program is opened. This bar usually has the START button, small icons that represent volume and other options and, finally, the time on the right side of the screen. The view may slightly vary, depending on user preferences. What is important in this example is how many elements sighted computer users see as soon as they open a program, in this case, Internet Explorer.

It is important to keep in mind that screen reader users can get access to the same information. They can read the title bar, go to the different menu options, read the content of web pages, see the status bar, etc. They can tell their screen reader to focus these elements and read them, one at a time.

Braille display users have to read in the same manner. They can see only a single line of text on the screen. There have been attempts to design a Braille display with multiple lines, i.e. to have as many lines as a standard page seen on the computer screen. It is true that this would give Braille display users a chance to quickly browse through the contents of the screen, but they still have to use their ten fingers to read the information, and thus they will not be able to do it in the same amount of time that it would take sighted users.

The aspect of linear reading is also present in assistive technology designed for low vision people. CCTVs and the magnification software deal with the same issue, although to a different degree, depending on the level of magnification. The more magnification is used, the smaller portion of the screen can be viewed. For instance, while those who use Internet Explorer with magnification 2x will be able to see the whole name of the browser they are using, all the menu items on the menu bar, most of the tools on the toolbars, and a part of the Internet Explorer window, users with magnification 6x will see only a part of the name of the browser, only several menu options, and a few tools on the toolbar.

As was the case with screen readers and Braille displays, the magnification software or the CCTV users are able to view the whole screen, but only in parts. They can tell their magnification software to focus on a given element or they can move around the screen with a mouse. CCTV users have to move the text they are reading to the right, left, up or down.

Teaching Blind People

Below I will describe concepts related specifically to teaching computers to blind people, I will discuss concepts related to teaching people who are low vision. Even though I am referring to screen reader users as “blind people” in the first two sections, and magnification software users as “people who are low vision,” I do not want to imply that these are the only possibilities. There are low vision people who like to use a screen reader instead of a magnification program or a screen reader in conjunction with the magnification program. Since I am discussing the concepts, and not all possible ways of using assistive technology, I have decided to use these terms depending on for whom the software was originally designed: blind or low vision computer users.

The Importance of Using Shortcut Keys

While it is not possible to read the information on the screen all at once, it is still possible to view it. Imagine how much time it would take for a blind user to learn what the time was, if he had to start reading the screen from the top left corner and had to go through the contents of the entire screen to get to the far right corner of the screen. It is technically possible, but I do not know a single blind user who would take the time to do it that way. What could be used instead is a shortcut key that brings the user directly to the clock.

Just to clarify, a shortcut key is a key or a combination of several keys that, when pressed, execute a certain function, i.e. focus on a certain location of the screen, like the title bar, the menu bar, etc, or perform a task: copy, paste, open a file. They are designed, as their name suggests, to provide a short way of executing a function. To narrow down the definition of shortcuts, it is necessary to distinguish between the categories: Windows shortcuts and screen reader-specific shortcuts.

Windows shortcut keys have been designed by Microsoft developers. They are shortcuts that allow sighted or blind users to perform the same action by using the keyboard as they would a mouse. It is possible, for instance, to press the Windows key, and that will bring up the START menu. Since the Windows shortcut keys can be used by both sighted and non-sighted users, they can be used without any assistive technology running. A list of such shortcut keys can be found in Windows Help.

Screen reader-specific shortcut keys can be used only when a screen reader is in operation. They are also specifically designed to accommodate the needs of blind users. A shortcut to find out what the time is, for instance, is one designed by developers of screen readers, rather than Windows developers. Sighted people can see the time without using any shortcuts, so it is not necessary to provide this option to them.

Presentation of Visual Concepts

Since blind people cannot see the screen, it is recommended that they are shown various computer-related concepts on diagrams or in any other form that will help them imagine what is occurring on the screen. I will describe how a computer concept can be presented to blind people and point out how closely it should resemble the image that sighted people see by using the example of several windows open on the screen. The idea, however, is applicable to any visual content of any given program.

The concept of having several windows open on the screen may be portrayed as several pieces of paper on top of or beside one another, where each sheet of paper would represent a different window. Sighted people notice immediately if there are several windows open on the screen; blind people will not see that right away, since their screen reader is focused on one element of the screen at a time. Only if they press a key combination (a Windows shortcut) will they know whether one or more windows are open.

It is not necessary to try to describe exactly how the screen looks, because sometimes it may not make a difference for the screen readers. In our windows example, for instance, it is not necessary to explain whether the windows are of an equal size, because the screen reader will treat them with equal respect. What is important to explain is that there can be several windows open on the screen and that there is a way, a shortcut key, to switch between them.

Teaching Low Vision People

Mouse & Color Enhancements

Since magnification software is designed for people who have enough vision to see what is on the screen, the programs come with easily customizable mouse and color enhancements, which may help low vision people to view the screen. Mouse enhancements allow low vision users to change the color and size of the mouse pointer, so that it can be easily found on the screen. Various color enhancements allow users to choose colors with which it is easier for them to view the screen. They may, for instance, find that the contrast is better when they choose black background and white or pastel colors.

Viewing the Screen

Naturally, when a higher magnification is used, a smaller area of the screen can be viewed. There are various viewing options from which low vision people may choose. This does not mean that they cannot view the magnified screen in pieces, i.e. by scrolling the mouse up, down, to the left and to the right; it simply means that there are more efficient ways of getting an idea what is happening on the screen.

Many magnification software programs come with several viewing options. The most common are: full screen (a default view, where the whole screen is magnified, and therefore only its small part is visible without scrolling), split screen (where the screen is divided into two parts: one magnified and one unmagnified), a lens (which looks exactly like a magnifying glass. It magnifies whatever it focuses on), and overlay (only a part of the screen is magnified, while the rest of the screen is not).

Chapter 1: Introduction to Assistive Technology

Chapter 2: Various Assistive Technologies

Chapter 3: Basic Principles and Ergonomics

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

Chapter 6: Accessible Web Design

Chapter 7: Overbrook Resources

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

Nowadays the internet is used worldwide for a variety of purposes, i.e. learning, entertainment, exchange of information, and email. All these tasks, thanks to the advanced features of up-to-date assistive technology, can be accomplished not only by sighted users, but also by those who are vision impaired or blind.

It may take longer for assistive technology users to view a given website for the first time, but once they become familiar with it, they can find information more quickly than those who do not use assistive technology. It takes longer to explore the web site for the first time because while sighted people can immediately identify the area of the website that they are looking for, blind users have to go through the contents of the page to identify the layout of the webpage, i.e., where to look for various links, buttons, and pieces of text. Once they do the initial exploration, however, they can bookmark the links to which they think they will be coming back often. The next time they go to the web page, they can easily find the bookmarked information.

It is difficult to follow any of the prescribed guidelines when navigating a website, due to the fact that most of them are designed according to the individual preferences of millions of internet users, and hardly follow any guidelines of a uniform design. While a desired link may be found on the top of the web page, it may be located at the very bottom of another web page. Both web pages may be designed correctly, and a sighted user may be able to find the desired link right away, just by glancing at the page. It will take longer for users of a screen reader to find the link that is at the bottom of the page, because they will have to go through a list of links before they will be able to “spot” the one they are looking for.

Nevertheless, screen reader users are able to use most of the things that the internet has to offer: email services, search engines, and discussion lists. They range from guides and curricula for teachers and electronic libraries for students, where they can find thousands of books in the electronic format, to news and games.

Exchange of information is another great advantage available to internet users. They can not only exchange private email messages, but also participate in discussion groups, emailing lists dedicated to a specific subject of interest. They can be used by students and teachers, those who do and those who do not depend on access technology. The discussion lists are very easy to use and their primary goal is to share information on a given subject. There are numerous useful discussion groups, ranging from those about the usage of various kinds of assistive technology, to sports, books, cooking, etc.

An increasing number of courses are being offered over the internet. In addition to email exchange, software such as Blackboard is used to facilitate virtual class discussion. There has been an effort to make this kind of software accessible for blind users, so that they can equally participate and benefit from today’s learning resources.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Assistive Technology

Chapter 2: Various Assistive Technologies

Chapter 3: Basic Principles and Ergonomics

Chapter 4: Teaching People Who are Blind or Low Vision

Chapter 6: Accessible Web Design

Chapter 7: Overbrook Resources

Chapter 3: Basic Principles and Ergonomics

Introduction

It is hard to imagine modern society without computers. Also at schools they have almost become a part of daily life. For persons with visual impairment the computer is, if adapted in the right way, a great help in written communication and access to information.

A visually impaired person, who cannot read his/her own hand-written text, might be able to read an enlarged type of letter on a computer screen. If a person learns to touch-type quickly, their typing may be quicker then the writing of others. A blind person, for whom the tests always had to be transcribed into braille, can now read their test on the computer and correct mistakes.

If a visually impaired person is skillful in using the computer, this will benefit them throughout their life. During their education, on the job the computer can be a very suitable means for independent communication and obtaining information.

To teach a visually impaired pupil to use the computer is an important task. It means a base for success in their future. This module intends to give parents and teachers a helping hand in supporting this learning process.

General advice: “parents and teachers: keep your hands behind your back!”

Supporting and teaching visually impaired pupils requires special skills. The best support is often given with the instructors hands behind their back, without the teacher touching the keyboard or the mouse!

This means that the pupil has his hand on the “steering wheel” (the mouse and keyboard) and “steers” based upon questions from the teacher. This is an important starting-point, because a visually impaired pupil lacks the overview of the computer screen. They have to achieve this based upon questions from the teacher. Always help the pupil verbally and let him/her execute the actions. Avoid the “ I can do it for you more quickly”, and help the student to develop their own insights and decisions. It is important is that the student always:

  • Gets an overview over the whole screen, because the overview gets lost when using devices
  • Gets insight into cause and effect
  • Gets insight into his personal needs, e.g. “I need a dark background, a big mouse arrow and no light reflecting into the screen”

Basic principles and ergonomics

Visually impaired pupils

Blind pupils

Computer

Basic principles and ergonomics

In this section you will find a description of the optimal position of the computer and the person working with it. Important aspects are light, height and repetitive strain on the joints.

How do you place a computer?

Light reflection on the screen should be avoided.

What is a good position when working at the computer?

What discomforts can arise when a person becomes overburdened by repetitive strain?

How do you place a computer?

Keyboard, mouse, speakers and a screen are usually placed on a table. The screen should be placed at the height of the eye, so often you will find it on a stand or a swivel arm.

Light reflection on the screen should be avoided.

You can see this best when the screen is turned off. If you see light from outside or from a lamp, then there is reflection. In this case there is less contrast and the screen gets dimmer and less readable. So be aware of light from outside as well as from inside. Sometimes you can simply remove one lamp that is above the screen, without putting the whole classroom into darkness, or you can turn the screen a quarter turn or use curtains.

The computer usually sits on or just below the table so the student can easily reach to the on/off button, the disk drive and the CD-ROM player.

The printer and scanner are usually at a greater distance if they are being shared with other computers.

From the computer several electrical wires go to the screen, keyboard, mouse, printer, scanner and electric point. Safety first: see that no one is going to stumble over cords or wires.

What is a good position when working at the computer?

The back should be straight and supported by a backrest. The shoulders should be relaxed with the upper arms parallel to the persons sides. The angle between upper and lower arm should be approximately 90°. The hands should be suspended in a neutral position or be supported by a special soft wrist support. Usually the sitting height is adapted to the height of the table and changed by adjustment in the height of the chair. The angle between upper-and lower leg is 90°. In some cases footstool may be needed if the persons feet do not naturally reach the floor.

Distance from the screen should be 35-50 cm. The mouse should be on the right or on the left (depending on hand dominance) on a mouse mat that is usually square and corresponds with the dimension of the screen.

The ball of the thumb rests on the back of the mouse and three fingers (index, middle and third) are placed loosely on the mouse buttons. The mouse is held by the thumb and little finger and moved on the mat.

It is best the chair has a height adjustment feature.

All these indications can be used to consciously consider a good working position. (see illustration)

What discomforts can arise when a person becomes overburdened by repetitive strain?

One can easily work too long at the computer. This is a common cause for chronic pain to the joints. These symptoms can arise due to a sitting in a tensed position and repeating movements like: clicking with the mouse or typing for many hours.

In general our advice is to regularly take short breaks or vary the type of work being done There are several small programmes that can warn you in time.

Visually impaired pupils

For visually impaired pupils a good working position is extremely important.

As already mentioned, reflective light can influence the readability of the screen.

Because of their visual impairment many student have the tendency to sit bent over at a very short distance from the screen. This position leads to tension in neck and shoulders and eventually a problem within the joints.

When we ask for a good working position there are two conditions: -the screen should be adapted and -the pupil should know touch-typing. If this is not the case we cannot ask a pupil to maintain the right distance. It can be expected that if the student cannot read the screen or the letters on the keyboard he/she will tend to shorten the distance between their eyes and the screen and keyboard.

A good observation and interpretation of what you see will give you indications for your lessons. In this part we give you assistance with what you can expect to happen and how you can meet the needs of your student.

Distance to the screenTyping skills

Using mouse or keyboard?

Reference to the list of keyboard commands

Light and reflection

Combining reading printed/written text and working with the computer

Distance to the screen

The distance to the screen should be between 35 and 50 cm. This distance can be influenced by several factors, of which the most important are:

Type and size of font - You can choose different types and sizes. In general a font without serif, like Universal or Arial, is best. You can judge what is a good font for an individual by having him/her to read text in several types and sizes.

Influence of glasses - Another factor that is often underestimated is the effect of glasses on the reading distance. Reading glasses usually are adjusted to a reading distance of 25 cm. This is a normal reading distance for reading a book or magazine. Other distances give a less sharp image. A pupil who constantly keeps a 25 cm. distance could be wearing reading glasses for that distance. The size of the font does not have any major effect on the distance to the screen. Sometimes there is better result without the glasses or with glasses especially adapted for the computer screen.

If the pupil is reading “with his nose on the screen” or reading very slowly, it can mean several things. It might be the position he is used to working in, even if he could work at a greater distance. It might be advisable to seek suggestions on special devices for visually impaired pupils from a specialist teacher of children with visual impairment or an eye care professional. Such special devices offer many options for helping student to work at the computer with less strain.

Typing skills

The better a pupil can touch-type, the better his working position will be.

Many students learn touch-typing on a mechanical or electric typewriter and later switch to the computer keyboard. This switch does not generally present many significant challenges other that that the pupil needs to learn the location and function of the extra computer keys.

Touch-typing is the base for all computer work, so even if it is not very interesting to practice, it is extremely important and there should be a big emphasis on practice.

Using mouse or keyboard?

With Windows the use of the mouse has increased enormously.

On the screen you find icons with text to which you can point with the mouse and click to perform an action. But using the mouse is not the only way. You can also use keyboard commands. For most visually impaired students use of such keyboard command is advisable, because it provides a sure way to get where you want, to perform all actions and to do so, often more quickly than when using the mouse.

Reference to the list of keyboard commands

The speed of the movements of the mouse and the size of the mouse cursor are often reasons to reduce the use of the mouse by visually impaired persons. The mouse can be suitable in some cases for making large movements on the screen. This should be seen primary as a means for orientation on the screen.

The teacher should only on occasion use the mouse during instruction. To understand this you need to first think about what happens when you use the mouse. You see an icon on the screen and keep looking at it. Then you move the mouse into your visual field, to the icon to which you are still looking. Once icon and mouse are together, you click. Because you have to wait for the action to be performed you move the mouse from your visual field and you overlook the changing of the screen.

Your students looks at this in a different way. They will try to follow the mouse action until it stops. However, when the mouse seems to be still, there has already been a click, the mouse is moved again and the screen changes. Somewhere out of the blue the mouse appears and the student wonders what they have seen. This is why one should avoid using the mouse during instruction or support every action very carefully with verbal information.

Light and reflection

In the section on basic principles and ergonomics we talked about incidence of light and reflection of light into the screen. These basis principles we hope you will have adapted in creating a working place for your pupils. However, there is more to it. Light plays an important role in visibility and not always the same one. Where one pupil asks for more, the other might wish a lot less.

The light (brightness and contrast) of the screen itself can also be bothering. Usually there is a solution in using the buttons on the screen itself.

It is important for the teacher to realize that the needs of the students are very individually defined. Sometime a student is not aware of the circumstances under which he/she sees best.

The teacher can support him in getting this insight. For some eye diseases there are general guidelines (no laws!) for enlargement and light. You will find examples at the end of this module.

Combining reading printed/written text and working with the computer

Often students have to read text from books or readers and use the computer at the same time to do their exercises. If possible put the books at the same height as the computer screen, so the pupil does not have to bend over all the time to read. Usually the distance cannot be the same, because the printed letters are smaller then the letters on the screen. Sometimes a pupil will need a reading lamp for reading the printed text. In this case, see that the light does not reflect into the computer screen.

If a pupil needs a CCTV, the two screens can be combined into one, by using the computer screen for the CCTV as well, at the same time (“split screen”) or alternating.

This system also has some disadvantages, such as:

If you combine the two systems you lose even more overview than you did by using a CCTV

The camera of this type of CCTV may not provide the quality of the black and white contrast needed for reading text than a separate CCTV does. (at the time we are writing this module)

Blind pupils

The working position with the computer for a blind pupil often is better and more relaxed than that of a student with some vision.. There is obviously no need to bend over to the screen or keyboard.

When observing blind students that are working with an adapted computer with speech you may notice that they “look with their ears”; sometimes with their head cocked in the direction of the speaker. Good observation by will help. If the position on the student seems cramped you can try to put the synthesizer on a different spot.

Typing skills are as important for the blind students as for those with some remaining vision.

The blind pupil does not use the screen, but it is can very useful for the teacher when providing instruction. With blind pupils it is even more important that the teacher “keeps his/her hands behind their his back” and only gives verbal instruction.

Computer

If you are thinking of buying a computer it is advisable to take into consideration the following:

Your pupil’s present or future needs might have an effect on the kind of video card, sound card and the number of free slots the computer contains. For example, some enlargement programmes require a particular type of video card.

Any specific advice we give here will surely be outdated by the time you read this. So we advise you to turn to your local professional organisation for most up-to-date information.

For a visually impaired pupil the quality of the monitor is very important, because a good monitor can save a lot of energy! So it might be worth investing in a good screen.

Important aspects to consider concerning the monitor:

  • Size: 15, 17 or even larger. However, if the student has a visual field restriction, bigger does not necessarily mean better!

  • Radiation: since the visually impaired pupils tend to sit close to the screen you should strive for monitors that meet the highest safety standards.

  • Frequency: the higher the frequency (Htz), the more stable and still the image on the screen. This means that looking at the screen is less tiring at a 100 Htz. screen than at a 50 Htz screen. This can be very important, especially for student that have difficulties focussing.
  • The contrast and brightness adjustments should be extensive. Take the time to all options!

For a blind student the screen is not important of course. The screen is only used by the teacher; so a black and white screen will do. What you save here might be better invested in a really good soundcard.

Now you will find a list of tips to adapt the appearance of the screen, the mouse pointer and the fonts of texts, that you can make in Windows 95 and higher:

Adaptation of the colours: in Windows 95, 98 and 2000: you can change the appearance of the screen completely for every pupil. This is one of the first and most important things to do.

Go to: start button, control panel, display appearance scheme: e.g. “high contrast, windows standard big”. Here you can change colors, foreground and background, fonts and size of the menu bars, icons and a lot more items. You can save the scheme for every pupil individually. Every individual will have his own preferences, this becomes logical when you think of the fact that in general yellow/blue gives a bright contrast, but for someone with a certain type of colour-blindness this combination is the worst, he/she might need black/white!

Adaptation of the font in the text: In programmes like Word it is easy to change the font. Go to format fonts and choose a font sanserif, like Univers or Arial and choose the right size. Teach the pupil how to do this independently and how to adapt texts that are written in another size or font. (Control-a to select the whole text, and change the font) A very quick way to enlarge the font of an already written text is to select the text (control-a for the whole text; 1 x F8 for one sentence, 2 x F8 for one paragraph, 3 x F8 for the whole text), enlarge the font by pressing Control-> (which means Control-Shift-.)

this is Arial 12 this is Arial 16

Adaptation of the appearance of the program you’re working with to achieve as much room for the text as possible. Tidy up the screen!

  • Always maximize for maximum size

  • When you use keystrokes you don’t need a toolbar with icons or a layout toolbar

  • Most of the time you do not use the ruler so you can remove it

  • Use normal image (no page or oversight)

  • Use the zoom function
Adaptation of the mouse pointer: usually the software of the mouse contains possibilities to choose the size and contrast of the mouse pointer. Go to start button control panel mouse pointer and choose a large size and contrast.

Accessibility: In Windows a special program for disabled people can be found. For visually impaired pupils some parts can be useful, like the high contrast scheme and (limited) enlargement possibilities.

Using keystrokes instead of the mouse: Practically everything can be done using the keyboard by starting and closing programmes and documents, changing settings, layout of texts. For most visually impaired persons this method is a lot quicker and more secure. Keystrokes can be found in every handbook concerning computer programmes.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Assistive Technology

Chapter 2: Various Assistive Technologies

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

Chapter 1: Introduction to Assistive Technology

What is assistive technology?

Why is AT important, and what opportunities does it create?

What are the limitations of AT?

1.1 What is assistive technology?

The term “assistive technology” has been used extensively in recent years. This does not mean, however, that assistive technology itself did not exist prior to the term’s widespread use. For ages, magnifying glasses were used in cases where a small print had to be read or a more thorough investigation of an object had to be made. Magnifying glasses enabled people to see what they otherwise were not able to see, and therefore belong to the category of assistive technology, a technology that “assisted” them in seeing something.

Nowadays the world is dominated by various technological devices, ranging from technology that enables people to fly in outer space, to machines designed for industry, to technology designed for use in the home and office. Examples of the latter include such devices as telephones, pagers, fax machines, printers, scanners, and computers, which have become indispensable to business people and to the population at large. Assistive technology, in the modern sense of the term, includes various devices or software programs that enable people to use modern-day devices that could not be used otherwise, or at least with any degree of efficiency. Blind people can easily use a telephone, for example, by dialing a number and then talking. Computers present a greater challenge. If the user cannot read the computer screen to access information, he is at a distinct disadvantage to his sighted peers.

It is interesting that various definitions of assistive technology reference the fact that this technology is specifically designed for disabled people. While it is true that disabled assistive technology users profit from it most, (since for them it is a required element for efficient use of the computer), non-disabled technology users could benefit from this assistive technology as well. Older people, or people who have minor visual problems and are not considered disabled, can benefit from the use of magnifying glasses or more advanced devices called CCTVs or video magnifiers, discussed in a greater detail in Chapter Two. Similarly, while it is true that computer users without the use of their hands greatly benefit from voice recognition software which allows them to dictate, rather than type, the text, the same software is now widely used by lawyers and doctors who wish to expedite the process so that they can allocate more time to their clients or patients. They can dictate notes directly to their computers in the same way that “disabled” users record or read a text.

A broader definition of assistive technology - the one we think is more appropriate - is as follows: assistive technology, often abbreviated to AT, allows people to perform various tasks which are impossible or more difficult to accomplish without it. Since this book is specifically designed for instructors of people who are blind or visually impaired, the discussed assistive technology will focus on the needs of those people. It is important to keep in mind, however, that assistive technology serves much broader needs than those of blind/vision impaired people. We will discuss specific types of assistive technology for this particular group of people in Chapter Two.

1.2 Why is assistive technology important, and what opportunities does it create?

The advantages of using assistive technology by blind/vision impaired people are numerous and indisputable. Integration into the workforce or classroom is the most important advantage, so here we take a closer look at the implications of this life-changing technology.

Over the past few decades, integration into the workforce or classroom has been a major achievement for people who are blind/vision impaired. For centuries, these individuals were - and still are in many parts of the world - doomed to perform certain jobs, whether or not they had an interest or a particular inclination towards such work. Common jobs have included massage therapist, musician (singing and/or playing instruments), and various kinds of crafters (broom makers, basket makers, etc.) While people who did not have to rely on assistive technology to do their job had a variety of job opportunities to choose from, blind/vision impaired people were, until recently, “stuck” with the stereotypical jobs that they have been known to do for centuries. Assistive technology developed in recent years has enabled them to break the stereotypes and to work, along with their sighted colleagues, in a number of disciplines ranging from law and government administration to education to more technical fields such as computer programming. In all of these fields, as well as in many others, use of a computer is, to a greater or lesser degree, fundamental. Assistive technologies have allowed blind/vision impaired people to use computers and therefore perform the same tasks as their sighted colleagues.

Blind/vision impaired students can use the computer to type homework or to do internet research, and thus compete successfully with their sighted peers. For example, a student can now buy a “regular” printed book, scan it to the computer, and have the assistive technology - a software that either reads or magnifies the text on a computer screen - read the book or magnify it to a degree that is appropriate for the individual user.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that assistive technology provides work opportunities in all fields and endeavors. There is no assistive technology that would help blind surgeons, blind hairstylists, blind architects, or blind graphic/fashion designers perform their duties adequately. There is no doubt, though, that job opportunities have been largely expanded. It is quite possible for blind people to succeed as lawyers, businessmen, computer programmers, teachers, and a variety of other professions. In Chapter Two we will look closely at specific examples of the ways in which assistive technology helps integrate blind/vision impaired people into the work or school environment.

1.3 What are the limitations of assistive technology?

The most important limitation of assistive technology is that most of it requires training, if the technology is to be used efficiently. The magnifying glass is a kind of assistive technology that is simple to use; its sole function is to magnify whatever is placed underneath its lens. Today’s assistive technology, however, is far more complicated; while it is possible to use modern assistive technology without extensive training, this practice may not yield a very good outcome. When a screen reading program is started and the user actually begins to hear spoken words, there is no assurance that he will benefit a great deal from the program. He must first learn various ways of getting the information from the screen in order to work quickly and efficiently. Similarly, users who know how to load the software that magnifies the text on a computer screen will not benefit from that act unless they know how to move around the screen in a quick and effective manner. What I want to stress here is the importance of training, because without it, assistive technology may prove to be a frustration or even a hindrance to the user’s progress.

Another important limitation of assistive technology is that it does not work without flaws in various computer applications. It often works smoothly, without major obstacles, in various Microsoft applications and an increasing number of other programs. However, there remain several programs which, even with the aid of assistive technology, cannot be used efficiently. I do not want to discourage people from using assistive technology; rather, I want to alert them to the fact that, unfortunately, some programs will not adapt to it. There is always hope that this situation will be resolved with future technological advancements, when more people become aware of the promising benefits of assistive technology.

Chapter 2: Various Assistive Technologies

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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