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Lesson 2 Adaptive technology for people with blindness and visually impairments

This lesson is divided into the following parts:

Part 1 : Using screen Readers

Part 2: Braille embossers and translation software

Part 3: Screen Magnification software

Part 4: Hand-held Magnifiers and Closed Circuit Television Systems

Part 5: Scanning Technology

Part 6:; Lesson take-aways

This material is copyrighted by Norman Coombs in 2017. We encourage your sharing useful individual pieces of information to help people. However, we request that you do not share the entire workshop without specific written permission.

Using screen readers

In lesson 1 you watched a video on the screen reader built into either windows or the Mac. Hopefully, that gave you an impression of what a screener does. Now, I want you to actually experience a screen reader. There two major ones, JAWS (Job Access With Speech) and NVDA (Non-visual Desktop Access). Both are very complex and rich applications. This means that they can interface with other complex applications. However, you can use their most generic features and remain unaware of all the complexity. JAWS is a commercial and expensive tool, Many users have its cost covered by some agency or the company for which they work. It also has a annual fee to enable your getting regular updates. NVDA is a free open source application. It is increasingly having the power similar to JAWS. For an individual, it may be totally adequate for his or her needs.

The link below will take you to the FreedomScientific site to get JAWS. Download and install it. When you run it it gives you the choice to purchase or run in 40-minute mode. This mode gives you all of its power, but it will require your rebooting your computer to run the 40-minute again. While this is a bother if you are doing actual work, it is free!

get JAWS

You should get NVDA. Below getting these applications, I have alist of activities for you to try experiencing just how a blind user will work.

Go to the NVDA home page and download and install NVDA

Before I have you do hands-on work on a screen reader, the next 2 links show videos of people using JAWS and then with NVDA

Watch Freedomscientific demonstrating JAWS

Watch a demo of using NVDA

What I want you to get is some real experience of how an actual screen user uses the software. It is possible to navigate the computer by sound alone and even use it to operate most of today's computer applications. As a beginner screen reader user, it may be frustrating at first. With practice and familiarity, it gets much, much easier.

Here are some activities to do to work with the screen reader:

OH!! now do the same thing with your eyes closed!!!

You need to understand the most basic aspects of a screen reader. The screen reader will give you online help. Also search the JAWS and NVDA pages for more help such as a manual or guidelines. I don't believe you have to become a super, advanced screen reader, but you need to know enough to get a student enough to launch her or him. The best way to get a student more skilled is to connect that student with another student who is more advanced.

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Part 2: Braille embossers and translation software

often people talk about a Braille printer which is inaccurate. Braille is not print; it is a series of raised dots on a heavy paper page. The process is embossing and not printing. Besides reading content on the computer, everyone frequently sends it to the printer and get a paper copy. For someone who is blind, they would send it to a Braille embosser which would produce paper Braille. Of course the user will have to be able to know Braille. Only a small percentage of people who are blind read Braille. Many serious university students will have learned Braille as many feel it provides a better guarantee that the accuracy of what is being read.

Braille embossers can in a wide variety. Some are moderately priced but would not stand a lot of tear and wear. The embossers creates Braille dots on a page rather than print. Students doing advanced STEM study, may want the hands-on experience of Braille. The inexpensive embossers are only capable of outputting letters and common symbols. If you need a paper copy of a map or some graphic, that requires a more expensive embossers. The inexpensive embossers only create dots in a fixed 6-dot matrix. That cannot create a graphic.

Besides of having an embosser, the computer needs a translation program which can print the dot pattern instead of print. Then, because Braille is more bulky, it must reformat the content. Just like a standard piece of computer paper has a standard length and height, so does a Braille page. This means a line of print must be put on a couple lines in Braille. Usually a print page with 2 columns on it will end up being a much longer single column. Tables may also need to be modified. Sophisticated Braille translation software can usually handle of all that.

Watch a video clip of using a braille embosser

Actually there is also ‘refreshable’ Braille devices to connect to the computer. It is attached just below the keyboard. It provides a interactive portion of what is on the monitor. It will be limited to a single line of maybe 20-40 characters. As the content is being pushed to the device, small dots pop up and disappear. For someone wanting to be sure he or she is reading exactly what is on the monitor, it avoids misunderstanding the spoken content.

Video of refreshable Braille

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Part 3: Screen Magnification software

Besides the magnifier in your operating system, there are several magnification applications you can get that are designed specifically for magnification. The one below is a free one. There are several commercial products that have other features. They will change foreground and background colors. They will focus the word as it scans helping someone with poor attention focus on the content.

Watch screen magnification

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Part 4: Hand-held Magnifiers and Closed Circuit Television Systems

You probably have a hand-held magnifier which someone in the family may use to see a small detail in an image. There are many hand-held magnifiers designed for people who are vision impaired. There are even small, pocket-sized ones which can be useful trying to read a restaurant menu.

For someone needing to read a lot of print and enlarge it there is closed circuit television. It is a device on a table with a base where you can lay the page or book, you need to read. A few inches above that is a camera which takes pictures of the content and displays in an enlargement on a TV screen. These get more costly, but for a right person with a specific disability and need, it is a fabulous aid. Some centers serving students with disabilities will have one as part of its adaptive technology resources.

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Part 5: Scanning Technology

Years ago it was common for a college to put an entire book on a document scanner and make an image of the entire book. Now publishers are increasingly providing electronic versions of a book bringing this tedious book scanning almost to an end. But there will always be a teacher wanting to take an article or some memos into electronic versions. There are also older books that have no electronic versions. Scanning print into an electronic form will be used for years to come.

When a document has been scanned, it is scanning an image. If you go to open it, you will have it display as a picture. It is a picture of letters. For many people this fills all their needs. However try cutting, pasting or editing. You'll find that all you have is a picture and no useful letters or words. Most sophisticated scanning software also include OCR (optical character recognition). This software tries to match the letters in the picture with actual letters and give you a version that can be read with a word processor permitting editing.

The problem for somone needing to read the picture document is the screen reader can't read pictures. To make the picture version accessible to someone using a screen reader, it has to be processed by OCR. Even then the document format is stil PDF but instead of an image PDF it is a text PDF.

In the past screen readers could not handle PDF even if it is a text version. Adobe has a free download called Adobe Reader which will process the PDF into a format accessible by screen readers. The most recent versions of Word will open a PDF document. It takes a few seconds to process to function in Word. Adobe Digital Editions also will make PDF accessible to screen readers.

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Part 6: Lesson take-away

There 3 things I hope you take away from this lesson. First have a slight sense of how blindness or vision impairments impact someone and how it creates problems in a learning setting. Second, You should have an awareness of the adaptive tools available to help someone transcend those disabilities. Third I trust you have a beginning of how these technologies work in order to train someone on starting to use one of these applications.


How did you do in using a screen reader especially when you closed your eyes?

What was your experience in trying to navigate and read a document using screen magnification?

Do you know what tools are available to students at your institution to provide a more level learning space for them?

Send the assignment to Norm Coombs

end of Trainer lesson 2