We really do live in in an amazing time. Today I read an article by Jonah Goldberg on the National Review web site that pointed out how much better we live than we used to and how inexpensively. That’s not to deny the economic trouble that is upon us and bound to worsen, but it helps to have some perspective. We have it good.
I was just thinking about this from the perspective of someone who is blind. I’m sitting in front of a computer that is reading the words I type and magnifying them to somewhere around twenty times so that I can see them too. While the system doesn’t always run smoothly, it is amazing that I can sit here and type at full speed while it tracks right along with me. Sitting to my left is the laptop I use for work, outfitted with the same software combo. It’s not a perfect world. The reason I’m writing to you at this moment is that they’ve pushed some kind of install that has kept the laptop tied up all morning, but a mere twenty-five years ago what I am doing now would be near impossible. There were things out there, but they cost as much as a small car and few of us could acquire them. Beside that is a CCTV magnifier that allows me to put printed material or anything else that will fit under it for a highly magnified view. Those unfortunately haven’t come down very much in price.
Now I don’t even need to go to the office, but if I do, the bus will automatically announce the streets as it takes me to the train station. The train will do the same for all the stops. I take along with me a cell phone that keeps me in touch online and reads everything out just like the computers do. That is possible because the thing has its own computer that has exponentially more powerful than the first PC I used back in ’88. I can use the phone or my dedicated digital audio book player (a Victor Reader Stream from HumanWare) to access all kinds of reading material. We wouldn’t call these items cheap, but I don’t currently know anyone who needs them who hasn’t managed to get one, though admittedly this is often with help from the government. Though I will not deny that government has played a role in advancing the availability of some of this technology, knowing how intervention distorts markets makes me wonder what amazing things we would be seeing if assistive technology companies couldn’t rely on state contracts to keep prices high and had to design and build directly for the consumer. That’s another topic for another time.
Now we’re beginning to see things I doubt many of us thought would happen. I don’t know which is more exciting, the advent of functional open-source free software for the blind, or the inclusion of accessibility in mainstream products made for the general public. I’ll tackle the latter first, since I don’t yet have any personal experience with it. Whatever you think of Apple, the fact that fully functional accessibility features are now integrated with all of their major offerings from the IPod Touch to the Power Mac is an industry first. If I were going to buy my first PC today, it would probably be a Mac. They cost more, but if I bought a PC with add-on software I would have to spend an absolute minimum of $300 extra. That as I recall is the low-end price for the least expensive commercial screen reader on the market and I’m thinking I’m short $100. That more than offsets the extra cost of the Mac. It’s likely that I would have to spend considerably more to get what I really need, amounting to the cost of the PC plus a Mac. I almost bought one when I went shopping for a new PC earlier this year. The only reason I backed out was the investment of time and money I already have in PC based software.
I can’t say that without pointing out one thing. I don’t have any specific information on this, but I do wonder if Microsoft’s tepid attempt at a screen reader doesn’t have at least something to do with the opposition it encounters when it is perceived as running other companies out of the market. Though I’ve been a fan of GW Micro and Window-Eyes for years and would hate to see them suffer the upheaval of having to find other markets, that’s economic reality. I can’t help thinking that if MS is willing and felt free to do so they could build a complete screen reader solution that would work better than anything we have today since they know the platform.
Of course, I could go with a free screen reader. Yes, there is such a thing. It’s called NVDA, and I’ve been trying it out on some other computers. It lands somewhere between Windows Narrator and a commercial solution, but initial tests are encouraging. So far I have only used it to do some light web browsing and word processing, but it has done a good job with Internet Explorer and Microsoft Word 2003. It is supposed to work with Open Office, something Window-Eyes can’t do. I have not verified this but I don’t think any of the commercial packages do. I haven’t given this a try yet.
NVDA did get me out of a jam. My wife’s new laptop runs Windows 7. We took it to church to run a DVD video for the class she is teaching, but it did not play as expected. Neither of us knew how to navigate out of the wrong video that was playing and get to the right one. I had already learned the hard way that Windows Media Player will not show protected video with Window-Eyes (or JAWS for that matter) running, but I needed speech. Having foreseen that this might happen, I had brought NVDA along on a USB flash drive. I quickly loaded it up and was able to find the navigation controls to get us back on track. It worked because NVDA does not hook into or disable features in the Windows Video subsystem. More time and testing will tell, but it looks like I could take this free screen reader to any PC that will allow software to run from a USB drive and have instant accessibility. If this proves out I will gladly donate to the project.
There’s other good news on the operating system front. If you go back a few posts in this blog you’ll find my first look at Vinux, a fully accessible installation of Linux. One common problem blind computer users face is that even if accessible solutions are available for their operating system of choice, there is no way to install the OS itself without help. Vinux addresses this problem by loading a fully functional copy of Linux from a CD. One then starts installation to the computer via a desktop icon, allowing the process to be spoken with the Orca screen reader. Since my original post a new Ubuntu based version has been released that addresses many of the problems I had with the older version. I have not had a lot of time to play with it, but so far I like what I’m seeing (and hearing.) Unless I just trashed it the other day trying to install MySQL, this version will be the platform from which I learn Linux and the tools I will need to set up a web server.
Accessibility is always a challenge. There are standards, and if all developers followed those standards then it would be easy to build solutions that allow the blind to use the same tools that everyone else is using. In the real world this doesn’t happen. That would not have to be a problem if any new elements or techniques were designed from the beginning with accessibility in mind, but most people are not aware of the problem. That or they think it will be too expensive or compromise their design to implement accessibility. That’s why there will always be room for add-on products that bridge the gap.
I recently encountered such a product, and amazingly it also is free, though donation is encouraged. I am still evaluating it and I’m not sure it isn’t causing some stability issues on my system, but with so many things running and updates constantly being applied it’s hard to tell. I think it’s a keeper. It’s a programmed with a name that makes you wonder what they were thinking. It’s called Qwitter. The site would probably tell me, but I’m guessing it’s a combo name for something like Quick Twitter. That would be a good way to describe it. My Twitter account exists primarily as a conduit for getting content to Facebook with the added benefit of exposure through another popular service. I always have Firefox open and use an add-on called Twitter Bar to quickly post status updates. My blog feeds Twitter which then feeds Facebook. That’s a bit redundant since FB picks up the blog anyway, but its RSS interface is not exactly timely, so the effect has been to spread notifications out over a few hours thus increasing the possibility that people will see it.
I follow a few people on Twitter using its RSS feature, but mostly I stick to Facebook. That may change now. For one, I hear there may be plans to add Facebook functions to Qwitter, but even without that this program is a uniquely effective way to handle real-time Twitter monitoring and participation for a screen reader user. It works directly with your screen reader of choice or you can use Windows’ SAPI speech interface. It relies on a collection of hotkeys much as your screen reader does and therefore can be used from anywhere. There is no need to switch to the window where it is running. It’s as close as you will get as a blind person to having a docked program on the screen like a sighted person might use for a similar purpose. It notifies you when new things come in and you then interact with it through the keyboard to read and respond to the posts. There are a lot of keystrokes to remember, but they are mostly tied by pneumonic to functions you’d expect. It can do just about anything with Twitter that you can do on the web site. The only exception I found was changing basic account information, which I suspect Twitter doesn’t provide API calls to do.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to Rick Harmon of the Blind Geek Zone for turning me on to this program. Check out his site for all kinds of info on all things technological as a blind user.
All that is just to say we are blessed to be living here and now. I don’t know what the future holds. In fact if things go the way I think they might, a statement like that may not be so easy to make in a few years. That is unless Jesus’ return is immanent, which seems very likely though we cannot know for certain. For now, appreciate what you have. Find ways to share with those around you. This is a pretty amazing place, but nothing compared to that which awaits those who trust in Jesus. If you don’t yet have Jesus, all the cool toys aren’t going to be worth anything in the end. I’d be thrilled to talk to you more on that subject if you are interested.