1999 Conference Proceedings

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Judith M. Dixon, Ph.D.
Consumer Relations Officer
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20542
E-mail: jdix@loc.gov 

Doug Wakefield
Telecommunication Specialist
Architectural Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
Washington, DC
E-mail: wakefield@access-board.gov

Learning to use a computer and its associated components can often be a daunting task. Making this job more difficult is the fact that formal computer training is often not an option; either because there is not enough time; not enough money; or, most commonly, no appropriate training opportunities. While this situation affects all computer users at one time or another, it can be an especially formidable obstacle for blind and visually impaired computer users.

While sighted colleagues acquire their computer skills by going to training courses, where 15-20 persons are trained simultaneously, such training is usually so mouse-intensive and relies so heavily on watching the instructor's movements, that these training opportunities usually have little, if any, value for a blind person. And, though most hardware and software arrives with a manual that is intended to instruct the new user on the basics of the component, accessing these manuals can also present a challenge.

For people who rely on screen readers to access a computer, the learning process is a two-pronged undertaking. First, is learning the new product, and simultaneously, is learning how the new product functions from the keyboard and how the new product works with a particular screen reader.

Assessment of Learning Styles

The first stage in the learning process is to acquire an understanding of an individual's best way of learning. People think and learn in different ways. In any group, there will always be evidence of different learning characteristics, and different cultural groups may emphasize one cognitive style over another. Psychologists refers to these different learning characteristics as one's "learning style." A "learning style" is defined as the sum of the patterns of how individuals develop habitual ways of responding to experience. Learning styles are distinguished by considering the holistic vs. the analytic learner.

An important factor in understanding learning styles is understanding brain functioning. Both sides of the brain can reason, but by different strategies, and one side may be dominant. The left brain is considered analytic in approach, while the right is described as holistic or global. A successive processor (left brain) prefers to learn in a step-by-step sequential format, beginning with details leading to a conceptual understanding of a skill. A simultaneous processor (right brain) prefers to learn beginning with the general concept and then going on to specifics.

For the purposes of this discussion, learning styles can be thought to be auditory (left brain) or visual (right brain). An auditory learning style (left brain) is characterized by verbal processes, response to word meaning, processing information linearly, and preference for formal study design. A visual style is characterized by visual, tactual, or kinesthetic processes; response to word pitch and feeling; processing information in chunks; and preference for sound/music background while studying.

Choosing the Best Learning Methods

There are a variety of learning methods available. Once a learning style has been determined, it can help make the best choice of learning opportunities. Auditory learners would probably choose cassette tutorials or a live trainer, whereas visual learners may prefer braille or large-print books or other forms of hardcopy documentation.

Sources of Useful Documentation and Tutorials A perennial source of training materials for blind persons has been private entrepreneurs who produce tutorials for specific products. Generally, these have been audiocassette productions, which work well as an adjunct to using a computer. There is a growing amount of material available in hardcopy braille and computer disk. When searching for books and magazines about computers, another good source is the cooperating network library.

A new source of cassette and text-based tutorials is Project Assist with Windows. This federally funded project has produced a variety of tutorials for using Windows applications with popular screen readers; all tutorials are free of charge and are available as downloadable files or can be ordered on audiocassette. More information about Project Assist can be obtained at: http://www.blind.state.ia.us/assist/.

Help File to Windows Clipboard and/or Text File

When beginning with a new software package, one easy way to get documentation in accessible format is to copy the help file or portions of it to the Windows clipboard. Then the information can be retrieved into something like Wordpad or Notepad and read or saved to a text file if braille output is desired.

There is also a shareware program, called Smartdoc, that automatically saves help files as text file. Smartdoc is a software package that is very useful for creating accessible documentation from a Windows help file. This Windows 3.1/95 program can convert almost any help file into a text file. Smartdoc is shareware, easy to use, and available from http://www.smartcode.com.

Keystroke Lists from Help Files

Most Windows applications have a help file that is specific to that application. Very often these help systems will include a section on specific keyboard commands for the application. To locate these, go to the help index and type "key," sometimes they are listed under "keyboard" and sometimes under "keystroke." Once located, it is a simple matter to select all with control-a, copy the file to the Windows clipboard, open a text editor such as Wordpad, paste the contents of the clipboard, and save the file for later reading or printing.

Other Sources of Information

There is a great deal of information about computers, operating systems, software packages, etc. available on the Internet. Some of it is in the form of full-length books, some very authoritative information is available from the web site of the producer/publisher of the item in question, while much of it is in the form of anecdotal information passed from individual to individual. A good source of full-length books is the MacMillan Digital Bookshelf at http://www.mcp.com/que. This site allows a user to select and download five books. The selection is vast and varied and includes titles on operating systems, popular software applications, and general computer subjects. Almost every major manufacturer and vendor has a web site with a vast quantity of useful information on the specific product. For more informal assistance, there are literally thousands of listservs and newsgroups where individuals can exchange information and provide assistance with common problems.

Training Sighted Helpers to Render Visual Concepts into Verbal Terms

Sometimes, when installing new hardware or software or just when Windows has decided to unexpectedly misbehave, it can be very helpful to obtain the assistance of a sighted friend or colleague. But often, it seems that competent sighted Windows users are unable to give a blind person the necessary information for an adequate resolution of the problem.

There are several reasons for this: the blind person often doesn't have a thorough knowledge of how Windows "looks" on the screen, the sighted person may lack the appropriate vocabulary to describe the objects in Windows, and the sighted person is usually accustomed to operating in the Windows environment in a very visual way with an approach to the whole problem completely different from that of the blind person's.

It can be very helpful for a blind person to learn how things appear on the screen. What are the various ways that something can be "highlighted"? What does an element look like when it has the "focus"? What are the different shapes of mouse pointers and what do they mean? How does a sighted person visually tell a checkbox from a radio button? It can also be helpful for the blind person to acquaint the sighted person with some of the names of Windows elements that screen readers (and developers) use routinely. What is a dialog box, a list box, a combo box, a slider, etc.?

It can also be helpful for the sighted person to become aware of how Windows can be used from the keyboard. What can typically be expected from the tab key, from alt-spacebar, or from alt-tab?


The most successful blind computer users rely on a combination of learning techniques and strategies. It is important that educators, computer trainers, and the like be aware of the materials and opportunities that are available. Many of these are radically different from the techniques traditionally used by sighted computer users but have nonetheless proven to be effective.

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