2004 Conference Proceedings

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Brian Walker
Susan Stageberg
Iowa Department for the Blind
524 Fourth Street
Des Moines, IA 50309
Phone: 515-281-1391
Fax: 515-242-5781
Email: walker.brian@blind.state.ia.us 
Email: stageberg.susan@blind.state.ia.us 


Screen access programs, also called screen readers, most commonly provide information through synthesized speech. The information provided by screen access programs can also be shown on a refreshable Braille display. The Braille support offered in the two most popular screen access programs, JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes, is sufficient to perform many common computer tasks without using speech. Yet it is evident that the usability of the provided Braille support is poor, and that a new user would find it extremely difficult to complete many of these common tasks.

These screen access programs were designed with synthesized speech output in mind. Is Braille output equivalent to what is spoken? The information displayed in Braille is not exactly the same as what is spoken, but does it provide sufficient information, both contextual and direct, for a Braille-only user of the screen access program to work as effectively and efficiently as a speech user of the same program?


In 1997, the Iowa Department for the Blind began work on project ASSIST with Windows (Accessible Step by Step Instructions for Speech Technology with Windows). The purpose of Project ASSIST is to develop and distribute computer training materials to blind and visually impaired individuals. In 2002, project ASSIST received a grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) to expand its training efforts. The goal of this new project is to create a comprehensive array of computer training materials tailored to the needs of deaf-blind individuals.

The computer can be one of the most effective means a deaf-blind individual has of directly communicating with the general population, who have neither specialized skills nor devices to facilitate such communication. Using assistive technology in combination with mainstream software applications, a deaf-blind individual can interact with others using e-mail, Internet-based communications, and electronic documents.

Developing tutorials for mainstream applications, used together with specific screen reader and refreshable Braille display combinations, the technology analyst and technical writer assigned to Project Assist's new deaf-blind project have had the opportunity to assess the state of Braille support in current screen access technologies.

The Problem

Screen reading programs for Windows provide computer access in similar ways. Keyboard driven commands to interact with the Windows interface and manipulate the mouse pointer from the keyboard are common to most screen readers. Even commands to read specific parts of application interfaces are similar from one screen reader to another. Commands to read an application title bar or status bar, commands to read the system time and date, and commands to adjust how much information the screen reader provides are common. The keyboard driven commands of screen readers generally add to built-in Windows and application commands, rather than replacing them.

Refreshable Braille displays also have common features. Most provide from twenty to eighty Braille cells and cursor routing buttons to quickly move the mouse pointer to a specific Braille cell and simulate a mouse button click in the corresponding location within the Windows or application interface. Many have Braille cells reserved for status information. Moreover, displays have their own buttons, switches, and keys, adding another interface for a user to issue Windows, application, and screen reader commands.

The screen reader determines what information is sent to the Braille display, what commands are activated by the Braille display controls, whether or not Braille status cells are to be used, and what information is displayed using the status cells. In other words, the screen reading software controls all aspects of the Braille display's behavior.

While a screen reader sends the same information to each Braille display it supports, the commands assigned to the buttons and keys on each display vary considerably, and not all available commands are assigned to every supported Braille display. To some extent, this is due to the variance of the physical interfaces on different Braille displays, but even when the physical interfaces possess commonalities, the assigned commands often do not. Many Braille displays provide a series of buttons in the configuration of a Perkins-style Braille keyboard. Using one of these displays, pressing the Braille letter S (dots 2-3-4) might open the Windows Start menu, while on another display, you must press the Braille ST sign (dots 3-4) to accomplish the same task.

JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes provide speech within their installation programs, allowing a Blind computer user to install the programs without assistance. yet neither screen reader provides Braille support during installation. Thus, a Braille-only computer user must have assistance to install these programs.

JAWS for Windows provides three Braille "modes" that determine how information sent to the Braille display is presented, what commands are available, and how Braille related commands function. This allows a great degree of flexibility, but adds complexity that makes this program more difficult to learn and use for a Braille-only user. Much information that is spoken is not displayed using the default Braille mode, and switching modes, reviewing this spoken information, then switching back to the default display mode is unnecessarily complex.

In Window-Eyes, information displayed in Braille corresponds to spoken information. The text displayed is from the line at the insertion point in a document, the selected item in a menu, or the line of text at the location of the mouse pointer. Commands to provide spoken information that is not displayed on the computer screen also display the information in Braille for a specified period of time. Yet less contextual information is provided in Window-Eyes. No indication is given as to whether the displayed information is from the location of the mouse pointer or the system focus within the active application. Information is not provided for the status cells available on many Braille displays.

Is the assistive technology itself so complex as to be a hurdle that must be overcome by Braille-only users? Is Braille support in screen reading programs secondary to that provided for synthesized speech? Is Braille truly equivalent in scope and usability when compared to synthesized speech? Are deaf-blind individuals and other Braille-only computer users put at an unnecessary disadvantage?

The purpose of this presentation is to illustrate constructively both the strengths and the shortcomings of Braille support in the latest versions of JAWS and Window-Eyes. Comparisons will be drawn between the features available through synthesized speech and those available with various refreshable Braille displays, and references will be made to more ideal refreshable Braille interfaces such as those available in electronic personal digital assistants for the blind.


Refreshable Braille displays provide a valuable means for reading the information from a computer's interface, and with the proper support from the screen reading software which controls them, they can also provide essential access to information by persons who are deaf-blind. While the two leading screen reading programs, JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes, support a variety of refreshable Braille displays with good functionality, questions still remain as to the ease of use of the Braille interface--especially for Braille-only users. In order to maximize the benefit of a refreshable Braille display connected to a standard computer running Windows, one must understand the strengths and weaknesses that are available with the various screen reading programs.

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