How Does Someone Who Is Blind Use a Computer

If you’re looking for something different to spice up your next business team-building exercise or family gathering, I’d like to suggest trying to use a computer without a screen.

The rules are simple:

  • The game is played in two-person teams. Person A makes all the decisions about how the computer is to be used, may manipulate the keyboard, but is not allowed to see the screen. They are the brain. Experience has shown that all but the most ethical participants will want to cheat so make sure to keep an eye on them.
  • Their partner, person B, may see the screen and read what’s on it but may only read a single line at a time. They may provide no other feedback. They are the eyes.

Each team starts out with 100 points but loses 5 points for each instance of profanity, 5 points for raising their voice, 10 points for hitting the computer, and 2 points for criticizing their partner. (This last one will happen a lot, so don’t subtract as many points.) The last team to zero wins. Warning: This will be far more entertaining if a little alcohol has been consumed, but you run the risk of having some very angry and frustrated participants.

If all of this seems pretty far-fetched, it’s reasonably close to what it’s like to use a computer if you’re blind. So, if it’s this hard, how does anyone ever do it? Below is a highly condensed version of my Computer Use for Blind Dummies.

  1. You will first need to load screen-reading software on to the computer to enable it to talk. If you buy an Apple product, it comes preloaded but using that is a topic for another day. Windows systems come with their own bare-bones speech program, suitable for only the most basic tasks. If you want to see what it is like, pressing the Windows logo key and enter simultaneously will get it talking. Once the novelty has worn off, you can shut it off by repeating the same keystrokes. Be prepared to pay something around $1,000. For the most commonly used speech software and an additional $50. A year for on-going support. This almost certainly means that you will be spending more money for a computer than you ever have or ever will again.
  2. Don’t worry about taking the mouse out of the box because you’ll never use it; you’ll be using the keyboard exclusively. As you know, there are a number of keyboard commands that Windows builds into the system such as alt S for send and control P for print. In addition, the screen reader has a far more extensive and complex set of commands you’ll need to memorize to do all those things you used to do by pointing and clicking. With practice, all of these key combinations will become second nature but get prepared for a far steeper learning curve than you’ve ever experienced.
  3. You’ll not be able to quickly scroll up and down or glance at another part of the screen while performing tasks because the screen reader can only read a single line at a time. Consequently, you’ll need to pay far more attention to where things such as links and text are located to avoid consuming vast blocks of time on routine tasks.
  4. However, among the numerous additional keyboard commands you’ll have to memorize when using the screen reader are some that will make it possible to skip to the next link, next heading, next table, etc. when reading a web page. While it is extremely easy and doesn’t cost any more money to code a site to facilitate accessing it this way, a very large number of web designers don’t do it, so plan on taking more time and effort than would be necessary on a majority of the sites you visit. Think of this as like trying to read a book without chapters or paragraphs. Incidentally, the Club VIBES site is an excellent example of how this should be done. All of the pictures you see here, for example, also are coded with an alt tag so that the blind visitor using a screen reader hears a very brief description of what the picture is when reading down the page. All of this is done behind the scene so as not to interfere with the experience of the sighted visitor accessing the same page.
  5. Some elements of web pages, such as graphs and charts, are completely inaccessible, regardless how skilled you are or how good the screen reader is. Your software will just read this stuff as “graphic,” and you’ll be left guessing what the mystery graphic is.
  6. You will need to be even more careful than your sighted friends in purchasing and loading third party programs on to your computer. Most anti-virus programs, just to site one example, are blind user hostile. All it takes is for one critical button not to be labeled to render the software useless. You will lose track of the times when friends or product reviews report how easy it is to use some new program only to discover that some key feature is completely inaccessible. Think of such conversations as like the old-time gas station attendant who, when you asked for directions in a strange town, would always conclude, “And you can’t miss it.” What they meant to say was “It’s easy because I know how to do it. It might not be that easy for you.”

Consequently, don’t be the first kid on the block to buy anything. Wait until more venturesome blind computer users have gotten what you’re interested in, tried it out, and reported how accessible it really is. More often than not, accessibility is not a clear “yes” or “no” choice; often it is more a question of where the product is on the “totally accessible” or “totally inaccessible” continuum.

Finally, remember that accessibility is a moving target. Just about the time you get your system running the way you want, there will be an update with a batch of improved programs, and you’ll have to start the whole process all over again.

Comments

  1. Marian Wildgruber says:

    Love this! Especially the team building/party game idea. Sue Buckley told me about the free screen reader, in the DA, which has met most of my needs and was very easy to learn to use. I was too overwhelmed by the cost and learning curve of the high end screen readers. I’m sure they can do more, But NVDA is a good compromise. You send donations to pay for it based on what you can afford. Just saying this for your other blog followers… Thanks for writing this! PS where did the word Blog come from?

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