2001 Conference Proceedings

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SCREEN READERS AND SPEECH INTERFACES ON THE INTERNET

Jay Leventhal and Crista Earl

This session will provide an in-depth analysis of Windows access with screen readers. We will review the basic tasks that a good screen reader must perform; misconceptions and realities about how to choose a screen reader; and profiles of the screen readers currently on the market.

We will then focus on our latest evaluations of screen reader performance on the World Wide Web. Areas covered include: specific screen reader Web features; e-commerce; online banking and Web accessibility. We emphasize that the user must know his or her screen reader, and can also benefit from the use of a self-voicing browser such as IBM's Home Page Reader or IsSound Corporation's pwWebSpeak.

TESTING OF WINDOWS-BASED SCREEN READERS IN AFB'S PRODUCT EVALUATIONS LAB

Testing was performed between September 2000 and February 2001. Each program was tested on a Pentium 700 and 550 with 128 MB of memory, using a DECtalk Express synthesizer. Additional testing was done on slower machines using Audapter, and Double Talk PC synthesizers. A variety of software synthesizers was used including: Eloquence, ViaVoice, and Microsoft SAPI.

Screen Readers Tested: JAWS for Windows, Freedom Scientific, Inc. outSPOKEN for Windows, Alva Access Group. Window Bridge, Syntha-Voice computers, Inc. Window-Eyes, GW Micro, Inc. WinVision, Artic Technologies International.

Tested Items

Screen readers were tested with the Web browsers Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5 and Netscape Navigator Gold 4.7. Similar testing was done with Home Page reader. All products were tested on a full range of Web sites. Sites included: simple text-only sites; simple and complex forms; e-commerce and banking sites; a variety of tables; and search engines.

Overview: How Speech Programs Work

The graphical and visual nature of the Windows operating environment makes it necessary for a screen reader to do more than simply lift material from the screen and send it to the synthesizer. Its functions can be divided into five categories:

  1. Identifying and reading text and graphics.
  2. Identifying and announcing the function of Windows constructs.
  3. Identifying graphics.
  4. Serving as a mouse or pointing device.
  5. Providing the information efficiently: in an order and with terminology meaningful to the user.

Program Profiles

JAWS for Windows (JFW) provides a set of basic speech commands enhanced by sophisticated, program-specific scripts. These scripts fine-tune JFW for particular Windows applications. Henter-Joyce provides well- written scripts for many popular applications, and JFW's performance excels in these applications.

JFW simplifies the reading of the screen by presenting the screen as a series of lines of text, even when the text is scattered and not actually linear. This process gives the user a reliable way to read the current line in a word processor and also the focused item in a dialog box. This approach can be a problem, however, when nonlinear information is forced together--such as articles on the Web displayed in newspaper-style columns. JFW reformats Web pages and provides a links list.

JFW supports numerous refreshable braille displays and several languages. Eloquence software speech is included, making it possible for casual computer users with sound cards to avoid the expense of buying a hardware synthesizer.

Window-Eyes was designed to work with a wide variety of applications out of the box. A large number of commands and options are available to fine-tune its function. These are accessed by going to the Window-Eyes menu and are easily changed by navigating through menus and dialogue boxes. Some basic settings--such as speech rate, pitch and volume--can be adjusted from the keyboard. Window-Eyes includes Microsoft's SAPI speech, making it possible for the casual computer user to avoid the expense of a hardware synthesizer.

Window-Eyes 4.0 supports a wide variety of braille displays. The user can switch braille displays and synthesizers from menus, without reinstalling window-Eyes. Window-Eyes reformats Web pages and provides a links list.

WinVision provides a large number of commands for navigating the Windows environment. Speech settings can be changed easily in a pop-up menu. Configuration files are provided for Word, Internet Explorer, Excel, and CD-Player. WinVision reformats Web pages and was the first screen reader to provide a "read-to-end" feature on the Web.

WinVision's command structure relies heavily on the control and alt keys. This causes many conflicts with Windows keyboard commands. WinVision's manual does not adequately explain a lot of its powerful features. There has not been a major update to WinVision since mid 1998.

outSPOKEN for Windows (OSW) provides the user with a small set of basic commands for navigating and reviewing text. Speech rate and a few other settings can be changed with hot keys. Other settings are changed in a pop-up menu. There are some program-specific configuration files, and elementary tools for creating them. As a result, the user has less opportunity to configure specific programs.

OutSPOKEN does not reformat Web pages or provide a links list. OutSPOKEN has a complete, Spanish interface allowing users to function totally in Spanish rather than hearing their Spanish synthesizers attempting to pronounce English screen reader commands.

Unlike most screen readers, OSW's Find command works in menus, making it a powerful tool for advanced users and less confusing for beginners. OSW supports braille displays and provides Grade 2 braille.

Window Bridge 2000 is a completely rewritten, Windows-based application. Previous versions included both a Windows and a DOS screen reader. Window Bridge supports a variety of braille displays, and is the choice of many braille-only users. Its many pre-written configurations greatly improve its performance in popular applications. Tools and features are also provided that allow users to create and save custom configurations and to fine-tune those provided. Window Bridge reformats Web pages and provides a links list. Many Window Bridge features can be accessed with hot keys, which save time for experienced users but can contribute to key conflicts for beginners.

Web-Related Problems

If the Web was completely accessible screen readers would have a much simpler job to perform. Since screen reader users must overcome access problems, a good screen reader must include features to make the user's task easier. The features are presented here, and we will give an up-to-the-minute list of which screen readers have each feature in the presentation.

Screen Reader Web Features

  1. Identifying and reading text and graphics.
  2. Identifying and announcing the function of Windows constructs.
  3. Identifying graphics.
  4. Serving as a mouse or pointing device.
  5. Providing the information efficiently: in an order and with terminology meaningful to the user.

General Advanced and Efficiency Features

Features that we especially looked for in evaluating a screen reader for general, advanced use included: a find feature that does not disturb the screen; the ability to automatically label graphics; flexibility in the order in which items are spoken; the ability to read system messages after an "illegal operation;" a generic way to read status lines in applications; the ability to read sentences and paragraphs; the ability to reclass problem controls; quick access to the system tray; and pixel by pixel drag-and-drop capability.

Web Accessibility

The following are highlights of the WAI guidelines, as well as some additional guidelines from the IBM Accessibility Center.


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