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Paul Blenkhorn and Gareth Evans
Department of Computation,
PO Box 88
Manchester, M60 1QD, UK
email: p.blenkhorn@co.umist.ac.uk


This paper is concerned with providing blind people with access to relatively complex software programs. In this paper we restrict our comments to accessing web pages (through Microsoft Internet Explorer) and personal organisers (through Microsoft Outlook).


Given that a blind person wishes to gain access to the World Wide Web or to personal organiser software there are three basic approaches.

Approach 1 - Using a Custom Self Voicing Application

An example of such an application for web browsing is BrookesTalk [Reference 1]. The authors are unaware of significant examples for personal organisation that have the same level of facilities as Microsoft Outlook on desktop machines. (There is, however, a long history of personal organisers for bind people, for example the Braille 'n Speak [Reference 2] and Braille Note [Reference 3].) The advantage of the custom application approach is that the interface will be specifically designed for the intended user group and may have innovative features that support its use. This advantage may prove, for some users, to be the deciding factor. The disadvantages are that another application has to be obtained and its developers have to ensure that it is kept up to date - possibly reflecting the changes made by commercial developers of standard programs. In addition, there are potential difficulties in using self-voicing applications whilst, at the same time, running a screen reader.

Approach 2 - Using a Screen Reader with the Application

Screen readers will access Internet Explorer and Outlook - but there are some limitations. We contend that new users find web browsing difficult even when the screen reader has good support for Internet Explorer or other browsers. One potential solution to this problem is, for screen readers that support scripts, to develop a script that presents the interface in a simpler and easier to understand manner. The difficulty with this approach is that the script is specific to the particular screen reader. This may or may not be a problem depending on the user's perspective. In addition, we find that some parts of Outlook are still rather complex to read with screen readers, e.g. the grid view of the calendar. Again custom scripts can help, but there are further problems. For example, consider the case of a user who wishes to find his/her next free two-hour appointment on a Friday afternoon. For a sighted user this is relatively easy, he/she keeps scanning through Fridays until he/she finds an appropriate free slot. For blind users this is much more difficult because they have to read the contents of each Friday afternoon until they find the free slot. We suggest that this functionality could be included in a screen reader script - provided that the script has access to Outlook's object model. However, this is again screen reader specific.

In summary, users (particularly novice users) may have difficulty in accessing some information with a standard screen reader. One solution is put intelligence into the screen reader to address these problems. The disadvantage of this approach is that mechanism screen reader specific. A further disadvantage is that it may be difficult to keep track of different versions of the standard applications. Microsoft has regularly updated both Internet Explorer and Outlook. These changes may necessitate changes in scripting, particularly if there are changes in the visual user interface.

Approach 3 - Presenting and Alternative Interface to use with a screen reader

In this approach an alternative interface to the application is constructed and the user reads this alternative interface using a standard screen reader. The alternative interface will obtain data from and control the application by using Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) - a description of using this approach within a screen reader is described in Reference 4. The alternative interface can present the information gathered from the application in a way that is potentially more amenable for reading by screen readers and in ways that are, perhaps, more suitable for novice users. Additional features may also be added, such as facilities to find free appointments in Outlook.

The advantage of this approach over Approach 2 is that is independent of any particular screen reader. Such an interface could be given the same interface as self-voicing applications designed especially for blind users (Approach 1), with the possible advantages of using the standard commercially available tool (leading to a potential reduction in maintenance problems) and having no conflict with the screen reader.

As with approach 2, any upgrades in the application may involve changes in the new interface program. However, this may not be so important. Firstly as the interface program interacts with the standard application at the Object Model level, changes in the user interface of the application are not a problem. Certainly changes in application version do result in changes to the Object Model, but the are typically upgrades and are often upward compatible. In practice, we anticipate that the only changes to the interface program will be to support any relevant upgrades to the Object Model.

The Approach

In order to evaluate this approach we have constructed two prototype applications. WebIE is a web browser, which uses Microsoft Internet Explorer, and Organiser that uses Microsoft Outlook. A summary of the features of each is given below.

Features of WebIE

WebIE presents a text-based version of the webpage. Links are marked in by a keyword that precedes the link name so that the user is aware that the text is a link. Using a keyboard shortcut the user can follow the link. The user has the option of viewing all of a page's links in a separate window. The links can be presented in alphabetical or page order. Complex pages often have a large number of links at the top of the page. When such a page is loaded into WebIE it is not uncommon for the first 100 lines or so to be links. The user can skip these links and jump to the main body of the page by using a keyboard shortcut. WebIE also supports online forms. keywords are used to mark text boxes (where user text is required) and items that can be selected, such a checkboxes and radio buttons.

WebIE handles frames by either creating a separate WebIE window for each frame or by placing the frames linearly (i.e. one after another) in a single Window. The user can decide whether to include images and their associated 'alt tags' in the WebIE window or remove them entirely. The user can view the original webpage using Internet Explorer and use his/her screen reader to read this web page. The user can thus toggle between WebIE's presentation and that provided by Internet Explorer. For users with some sight, WebIE allows the user to select the font (including its size) and to change the font and background colour.

WebIE does not deal with JAVA scripts or plugins such as macromedia Flash and Shockwave.

Features of Organiser

Organiser uses Outlook menus and dialogue screens where a screen reader can easily read these. Organiser reformats information that is difficult to read and additional functionality is provided. The original Outlook keyboard shortcuts are maintained and augmented by additional shortcuts that provide the additional functionality.

The Outlook Calendar view is one of the screens that is replaced. This grid-based view is difficult to read. We replace this with a tree-based view of a single month; the user can move back and forth between months using a keyboard shortcut. Additional functionality is added to allow the user to easily find appointments. A user can find free appointments. There are facilities to find the next appointment of a specified duration. The search for a free appointment can be constrained to fall on a certain day, certain time of day and within specified working periods.


Both interfaces are in the early stages of testing with users.


The authors wish to acknowledge the UK Guide Dogs for the Blind Association who partially funded this work and to thank James Brown, Raksha Desha, Berrisford Edwards, Robert Miles and Nidal Salah for the realisation of the prototype tools.


1. M. Zajicek, C. Powell, C. Reeves and J. Griffiths, "Web Navigation for Blind Users", 6th ICCHP, Vienna/Budapest, 1998

2. D. Blazie, "Braille'N'Speak: A story, an update", The Braille Monitor, pp. 174-176, April 1988

3. "What is Braille Note", http://pulsedata.co.nz/handlers/display.cfm/11,139,10,html, current at 26/09/01

4. P. Blenkhorn and G. Evans, "The Architecture of a Windows Screen Reader", Assitive Technology - Added Value to Quality of Life, Ed. C. Marincek et. al, IOS Press, Amsterdam, pp 119-123, 2001.

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