2001 Conference Proceedings

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Access without limits: An all new approach to screen access for the blind and visually impaired

Roberto Gonzalez
ALVA Access Group
Oakland, CA
www.aagi.com

Historically, the popular screen readers on the market today have, for the most part, extended their approach to screen access in DOS to that of the graphical environment by adding layer upon layer of key combinations and review cursor modes in order to render and sometimes fabricate the desired output in speech or braille. Moreover, attention to refreshable braille was introduced as a distant second to that of synthetic speech output, resulting in an unsatisfactory solution, especially when operating exclusively in braille. Yet, judging from the popularity of the Windows-based screen readers which adopted this approach, one could reason that the DOS tactic applied to a graphical interface has been a success as it provided an experienced DOS user with a familiar command set when it became time for the user to migrate to Microsoft Windows. However, as a result of a proverbial rat race to meet the high demands of users, one of the biggest criticisms of the modern-day screen reader is that the complexity of these programs has grown exponentially in comparison to their DOS counterpart. Years of upgrades and updates to the same program interfaces have added dozens and even hundreds of commands to the extent that a user must learn a large and often awkward command set in order to operate the screen reader for routine tasks such as to open and read a document or e-mail message, and to browse the web. In addition, learning a proprietary programming or scripting language is required in order to facilitate moderate to complex customizations of the screen reader to enable access to a poorly supported application.

The motivation behind outSPOKEN World was to provide a fresh approach to screen access, tailored specifically to a graphical user interface so that learning, using and configuring the software is in accordance to the behavioral aspects of the native operating environment and thus more manageable for the common blind computer user. In other words, since the vast majority of new computer users are neither privileged nor hindered by a DOS-prompt past life, users of outSPOKEN World1 for Windows 2000 will benefit by utilizing a small yet powerful set of screen reading constructs in order to be on par or even surpass the performance and productivity of previous generations, sooner and with less difficulty. Moreover, outSPOKEN World1 was developed to incorporate the specific needs of the speech-only user, the braille-only user as well as the hybrid speech and braille user.

Innovations in both speech and braille output enhances the Windows experience with the introduction of new or augmented mechanisms appropriate to the output medium. For example, applications-specific preferences such as keyboard feedback when typing, voice settings such as rate, pitch and punctuation level, and regional language settings are available from a well-organized Preference editor. outSPOKEN World1 extends traditional mono speech output to that of multidirectional speech to accommodate the growing complexity of how information is spatially related. Access to web content in a browser is enhanced by permitting text to be reviewed in a sentence-oriented manner as well as providing a versatile dialog of links, controls and methods for navigating these components. A tool known as Active Areas has been enhanced for customizing braille and speech output based on event-triggered occurrences in a window. To improve the learning curve for the beginner user, the most common reading and navigation commands can be executed from a convenient Command menu at any time. Finally, the entire outSPOKEN World1 user's manual is provided in a standard hypertext format.


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