Farewell to Window-Eyes: Fond Memories Of a Unique Screen Reader

On May 19, we celebrated Global Accessibility Awareness Day. It is ironic that, four days earlier on May 15, GW Micro (VFO) announced the news that the Window-Eyes screen reader would cease development. All users who were using the commercial version of Window-Eyes would be entitled to upgrade to JAWS, with users of version 9.0 or later being given the chance to receive a JAWS 18 license at no additional cost. Users of the free Window-Eyes for Users of Microsoft Office version, such as myself, are an exception and would not be entitled to upgrade to JAWS at a discount price.

This news was both sad and, for many, hardly unexpected. After AI Squared became a part of VFO Group, Jonathan Mosen interviewed David Wu on Freedom Scientific’s FSCast podcast. Mr. Wu was formerly CEO of AI Squared and is now VP of Software Business at VFO. While Mr. Wu tried to keep the tone very positive and upbeat, reading between the lines made it clear to me that JAWS and Zoomtext were VFO’s more popular products and Mr. Wu seemed a bit less reassuring when discussing MAGic or Window-Eyes, although these are clearly my own impressions of the FSCast interview from June of 2016. Maybe he didn’t mean to present that impression but that’s what I came away with when I heard the podcast. Perhaps it’s true that JAWS is the world’s most popular screen reader. I’ve been a user of JAWS since version 1.0 shipped on several floppy disks, along with Eric Damery and Ted Henter providing tutorials on cassette tapes, and I’ve seen the program evolve into a powerful and capable screen reader. JAWS 18 is most definitely one of the most feature-rich screen readers you could install onto your Windows computer and its popularity is certainly well-deserved. However, one of the things which I value is consumer choice. While I regularly use Microsoft Office 365 to perform the majority of my word processing tasks I am grateful that we have worthy alternatives, such as the free LibreOffice, to allow users to perform similar tasks using quality software. While I respect the feature set of Microsoft Outlook I prefer to use Mozilla Thunderbird for sending, reading and sorting email while I’m at home.

The same is true for screen readers. I’ve already expressed my admiration for JAWS and feel that it’s an amazing access package. However, for financial reasons I use NVDA as my screen reader of choice and occasionally have used the free version of Window-Eyes for users of Microsoft Office. Consumer choice is an important thing when it comes to access. One screen reader may meet the needs of an individual more than another, for a variety of reasons. Sadly, VFO buying AI Squared has taken one of these choices away from us, which I feel is a tremendous loss.

I’ve been a trainer and, to some extent, a user of Window-Eyes since the late 1990s. It offered some very unique features and capabilities which, in some ways, weren’t always available in other screen readers and I’d like to take some time to celebrate the unique features Window-Eyes brought to the table.

First, let’s consider the way we browse the Web using our preferred browser of choice. Nowadays, screen readers are able to reformat complex Web pages and render them in the same way that a word processor opens a document, allowing the user to navigate the Web page using standard arrow key navigation. This is now a given and something we’ve come to expect when using a screen reader on the Web. This capability exists with JAWS, NVDA and in VoiceOver on the Mac. However, it was Window-Eyes which was one of the first screen readers to offer this feature, a year or so before JAWS implemented it, if memory serves. True, in those early days it took a long time for some Web pages to load and so the feature wasn’t always a joy to use. Admittedly, when JAWS implemented the feature they did it much better in those days, with Web pages loading very quickly. Over the years, Window-Eyes improved by also loading pages much faster but the point is that Window-Eyes may have been one of the first screen readers to have pioneered that feature which we all take for granted now. As an update, I have changed the wording to this section as I was reminded of a feature known as Web Pilot, found in Artic’s Winvision, which may well have been the first screen reader to have offered this capability.

Window-Eyes was also the first screen reader to support Mozilla Firefox, something which we now enjoy with JAWS as well as NVDA. Back in the day, if you were a screen reader user and you wanted to browse the Web you had to use Internet Explorer. Other browsers, at least in Windows, just weren’t an option. I believe that Window-Eyes was the first screen reader to give us access to Mozilla Firefox.

Window-Eyes is probably the only screen reader with the capability of launching with speech, when possible, in safe mode. This is a feature I have yet to encounter in other screen readers.

If your system’s volume was muted or at a low level, Window-Eyes could be configured to load, forcing the volume to be unmuted and raising the volume level. This solves the problem where someone accidentally or intentionally muted your speakers, causing a minor nightmare when you tried to load your screen reader and receive no speech output. These are capabilities I’d love to see in other screen readers, such as NVDA and JAWS.

One of my favorite Window-Eyes features is actually something which was probably in the earliest versions and was also found in the Vocal-Eyes screen reader for DOS. The feature to which I’m referring was known as cursor keys. It differed from the other hotkeys in that, with hotkeys, the function you assign to a key bypassed that key’s original function. In other words, if you assign the hotkey ctrl+L to read the current line under the caret or cursor the line would be spoken when the key was pressed. However, if you pressed that hotkey while in Word to left justify your text the key wouldn’t function, instead reading the current line (unless you used the Bypass key first.) However, the cursor keys feature was unique in that the original function of the key you chose to define would not be lost. Therefore, if you wanted the Home key to speak the current character you could assign that function to the Home key, without interfering with the key’s original function. When the key was pressed, the key would move the cursor to the beginning of the line as designed, followed by the function or functions you assigned to that key. This allowed for some amazing flexibility which is not even available with JAWS, unless you’re willing to learn scripting.

Speaking of scripting, I’ll end my Window-Eyes memories with a discussion of that program’s most amazing feature, utilized in a way not found in other screen readers.

Starting with version 7.0, Window-Eyes added the ability for its users to write customized scripts in order to add additional functionality to the screen reader. Many people may be quick to remind me that JAWS has had this feature since the very beginning, first with giving users the ability to write macros and, starting with JFW version 3.0, calling them scripts. While this is true, there are some differences in the way this capability was being offered.

First, GW Micro allowed its users, as well as their staff, to upload scripts to a central repository on their Web site known as Script Central. Later, they made the brilliant decision to do a bit of rebranding and scripts, which sound scary and challenging, became apps, which sound like a lot of fun. Let’s face it; nobody knows anything about what a script is but anybody with a smartphone or tablet is an expert on apps. With this change, Script Central became App Central and Window-Eyes had its very own, user-friendly app store. Apps were quite plentiful, grouped into categories and users could add their own comments on the various apps which they liked. Window-Eyes even came with an app which allowed for easy navigation to this specialized app store. Apps could then easily be downloaded and installed, using similar screens which you would encounter when installing any piece of software. You could navigate through the Window-Eyes Apps menu to examine the list of apps you had installed and could easily remove apps you no longer wanted. Apps could even alert you when they had updates and those updates could easily be installed. The concept was positively ingenious. I never understood why JAWS, with its powerful scripting language, never offered a similar repository. In the screen reader’s early days Henter-Joyce did offer some scripts on its Web site but this is no longer the case. If you want to locate scripts for your copy of JAWS you must locate them on third-party Web sites.

To be quite honest, Window-Eyes was far from perfect. In spite of its innovative features there were times when I felt I was using a not quite ready for prime-time beta, rather than a final release. Of course, no software is without its bugs but, to me, it always felt as though Window-Eyes had more than its share of them and I sometimes found it to be frustrating to use.

In spite of this I still feel that the assistive technology landscape has been greatly diminished at having one less screen reader for users to work with. It is a regrettable consequence of AI Squared becoming a part of VFO Group and I am sorry for all users of Window-Eyes who are now forced to switch to a new screen reader.

In closing, I would first like to ask VFO to respectfully consider donating the Window-Eyes source code to the community for further development. If you feel that you no longer wish to develop the screen reader please consider releasing it to the community as there are many Window-Eyes users who don’t want to see the demise of their favorite screen reader.

Finally, I would like to thank the developers of GW Micro, both for their work with Vocal-Eyes for DOS as well as with Window-Eyes. You have made an important and memorable contribution to users of blindness assistive technology. I sincerely thank you for providing us with a unique, easy to use and customizable screen reader.

Reading Books in the Electronic Age: Next Topic/Philadelphia Computer Users Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired

When I was growing up, visually impaired readers had very few sources for obtaining accessible books. For most of us, our primary source was likely the National Library Service. Books were sent to us either in Braille or in recorded format. The recorded books, known as talking books, were played using cassette tapes or phonograph records. Records were played on a rather large record player with, at least on the one which I had, a detachable speaker. Tapes were played on very rugged but still large tape players, equipment which was also issued by NLS, meaning that it wasn’t yours to keep. Braille books often consisted of several volumes, with the average novel taking up 2 to 3 thick volumes, being shipped in large containers. I’m sure many of us have memories of having stacks of books, and the containers they shipped with, taking over not only our bedroom but perhaps even the entire house, driving our other family members a bit bonkers. Magazines, while available through NLS, were few in number. There were a few other specialized libraries but most of us probably started with and resorted back to NLS for the majority of our reading needs, even though the amount of material was a drop in the bucket compared to what was available for sighted consumers. Also, once a book was published in print we would likely have to wait for nearly a year before we could get our hands on that book through NLS, assuming that NLS chose to make it accessible in the first place. Once we knew that our local NLS affiliate had the book, we would order it, usually by calling a librarian over the phone, and we would then wait for the book to arrive in the mail, with free matter shipping meaning we’d have to wait even longer for the book to arrive.

I’ll bet that most blind readers never even thought to set foot in a public library, unless it was a time when they began offering books on tape for patrons to borrow. Beyond that, most libraries and bookstores were pretty much inaccessible to most of us. When I was a kid, acquiring a scanner for converting printed material into an accessible format was possible but the technology cost around thirty thousand dollars, putting the capability out of reach for most of us, myself included.

Fast forward to 2017. While NLS may still be the go-to source for books for many of us, books no longer need to be delivered to our door in big, bulky containers. Thanks to the BARD service, we have the capability to download a book in minutes and play it on a variety of players we can actually own for ourselves such as a Blaze ET,
Bookport Plus or the Victor Reader Stream. We can even download them and read them on our phones, tablets or iPods. For those who use electronic Braille, a Braille book can be downloaded in less than a minute to be read on a Braille display, without needing to worry about flipping over the address card and putting the boxes in the mail. Our public libraries offer not only books on CD but downloadable books as well, which can be read on our computers, tablets or smartphones. Not to mention that many libraries also offer free access to online digital content, such as various journals, magazines and encyclopedias.

While brick and mortar bookstores may still be inaccessible to us, we are now able to independently browse the virtual bookshelves of online stores such as Kindle,
Barnes and Noble, Blio,
Bookshare and Learning Ally, without needing to ask for the assistance of a family member or salesperson. Once we find the book that we want, we can download it, usually in less than a minute, and instantly have it available to read on our device of choice. Many of these online stores can also provide us with access to magazines as well as books. Today, if a book is published in print, chances are that we can get it in an accessible format the same day our sighted counterparts can get it in print, considering that more and more sighted readers are reading books on Kindles, Fire Tablets and iPads just as we are. Thanks to the built-in accessibility of these devices, we can buy a reading device such as a Kindle e-reader or a Fire tablet at a very reasonable price, such as the new $49.99 Fire 7 tablet from Amazon. If the book or magazine we want isn’t available in an accessible format, the prices of scanning options have come down significantly since the days of the clunky thirty thousand dollar Kurzweil Reading Machine. In addition to software such as OpenBook and the Kurzweil 1000, there are options which are even more inexpensive, such as the KNFB Reader app, available on iOS,
Android and, as of March of this year, Windows 10.

During the next phone meeting of the Philadelphia Computer Users Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired I’d like to discuss this topic, in depth, with any of you who are interested in discussing it. Questions for possible discussion might be:

  1. What are your favorite sources for books?
  2. Are there sources which you use for books which I have not mentioned and which you feel we should know about?
  3. How do you prefer reading books? On an iPad? A Victor Stream? An iPhone?
  4. Do you have questions about using these or other services?

If you have something to share about this topic, I’d love to hear from you. All are welcome to call in and participate or just to listen. Even if you’re outside of the Philly area, you’re more than welcome to join us.

When: Friday, May 26

Time: 8:00 PM Eastern time

To join us, the number to call is

(712) 432-3900

When asked to enter an access code, enter

391477

Followed by the pound key.

Looking forward to our next phone meeting.

Consuming Books: Reading Vs. Listening

This morning I was browsing my Facebook timeline and stumbled on a post from one of my friends who posed a very interesting question. The question has to do with the wording we use to convey how we consume audio books. My friend pointed out that she’s noticing a trend, both with blind and sighted readers, where they will use the verb “listen” instead of “read”, as in “I just finished listening to that book” as opposed to “I just finished reading that book”, as if consuming a book via audio isn’t quite the same as reading it.

First, I’ll provide a bit of background into my own life as an avid reader. I learned how to read Braille when I was around four and how to write it not much later than that. I’ve always found reading Braille to be very easy and I’ve been reading books using Braille for about as long as I can remember. I remember the enjoyment I always felt going to my school library, browsing the many shelves of Braille books and being able to check out one or two books a week, which I always read quickly. Of course, there were many books, known as talking books, which were recorded on cassettes’ as well as on phonograph records. Talking books have been available for blind and visually impaired consumers to borrow since the 1930s, way before audio books became popular with sighted consumers. While I never hesitated to borrow a book on tape from my library, Braille was always my preferred medium and, when given a choice between Braille and audio, Braille was always what I chose.

As I’ve embraced new technologies the way I consume books has also changed. Nearly all of the books which I consume are done so audibly and not in Braille. There are several reasons for this and they don’t apply to all readers who are blind. First, most of the books which I want to read are just not available in Braille. While the National Library Service produces many Braille books there are simply more titles available in an audio format. Even then the amount of books produced by NLS, while I greatly appreciate the work that they do, is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of titles available from other suppliers. Bookshare, another specialized library for people with print disabilities, offers over half a million books and that number continues to increase. Learning Ally is another specialized library which I’ve used for over 35 years, offers around 80,000 human-narrated titles. Of course, mainstream book suppliers such as the Kindle store offer millions of books, with more constantly being added. These specialized and mainstream suppliers offer a much greater selection of books than what I am able to borrow from my local NLS affiliate.

Some readers will no doubt want to remind me of the fact that we do have Braille display technology, which will work both with my computer as well as with my phone. This is certainly true and a Braille display would certainly allow me to read books from any of these suppliers using the same Braille code that I enjoyed using with books printed on paper. However, there are reasons which, for me, make this an impractical solution.

First, Braille display technology, while readily available for many devices, is often costly. As an example, Freedom Scientific’s most inexpensive Braille display, the Focus 14 Blue, costs $1295.00. At this time spending over a thousand dollars for a Braille display is just not something which I could easily do, considering it’s a device that I don’t truly need. However, even if a Braille display magically dropped onto my desk the fact is that I do a lot of reading either on the train or lying in bed. Reading with a Braille display on a moving train, no matter how portable, is just too awkward. When I’m lying in bed and wanted to read a book it’s just so much easier to do this with a small phone and would prove to be a bit less convenient if I added even a 14-cell display.

Anyway, back to the topic. My friend was pointing out that she has noticed that many people say they’ve listened to a book as opposed to reading it if the book was consumed in an audio medium, such as an audio CD or listening to it with synthetic speech using the Kindle app. However, this also makes me think of how we often use the word “read” when we actually have listened to the book.

This raises some interesting questions. When it comes to books, is it fair to consider it reading regardless of how it’s consumed? There are probably some sighted people who feel that the only way to truly read a book is to do so by processing the printed material visually. Of course, as blind people we know this is certainly not the case. All of us would agree that processing the information with our fingers would just as validly be considered reading as processing the information with our eyes and, in that instance, there is no controversy. However, the wording sometimes changes when we shift from print on a page to either a human narrator or a synthetic voice coming from a pair of speakers or from our portable phones and tablets. If I consumed a book by listening to it with an app such as Voice Dream Reader, am I wrong to say that I’ve read the book? Most blind people would say that I’m not and I would tend to agree with them.

However, let’s say we have an individual who is blind who never learned how to read Braille. There are some valid reasons for why they might not have been taught how to read and write in Braille, such as having neuropathy in their fingers which would prevent them from being able to distinguish the dot patterns. In such a case, this blind individual would only be able to consume books in an audible format. Considering this, would we look at that blind person who didn’t know Braille and conclude, if only to ourselves, that this person was illiterate. We might not say that to their face in the course of normal conversation but do we consider a blind person who doesn’t know Braille to be illiterate? If the answer to that question is yes then can we say that this blind person, not knowing Braille, has “read” a book when it was consumed by listening. If we say no, then why is it acceptable for me to say that I’ve read a book and my hypothetical blind person could not say that, just because I can read Braille and he cannot.

Let’s take this a step further and consider a fully sighted person who, for one reason or another, never learned how to read print. There’s no doubt that we would conclude that this person would be considered illiterate. Saying so is not meant as an insult but, in this case, is indisputable; someone who can’t read is illiterate. My hypothetical blind person might not have the ability to learn Braille and the sighted person could, with proper training, learn how to read print but, until that individual chooses to take classes in how to read, we would all agree that he’s illiterate. Given that fact, would we tend to disagree with the illiterate sighted person if he told us that he “read” a particular book by consuming it in an audible medium? Wouldn’t we think, “No, you didn’t really read that book, you listened to it.” If this is the case, then why is it OK for me, as a blind person who knows Braille, to tell people that I may have read the same book by consuming it in the exact same way but yet fewer people would think of challenging my word choices.

Admittedly, this isn’t the most important topic which should concern us. I don’t think about it all that much and it certainly doesn’t keep me up at night. However, I think these issues are important as it has really forced me to think about what we mean when we speak of what it means to be literate.

 

As an aside, the person who brought up this topic is one of the proprietors of Speeddots, which sells various tactile screen protectors for your Apple iDevice. They also sell various Bluetooth accessories as well as rugged lightning cables with a life-time warranty.

So, how do you feel about this? For you, does listening to an audio book qualify as reading it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

New for Users of Amazon’s Alexa

What I’m about to share is likely already known to people who keep up with Amazon’s Alexa products.

First, users of Alexa products can use their devices, or even the Alexa app, to make and receive “phone” calls. In order for this feature to work, you need to enable the feature in your Alexa app or, presumably, Alexa’s Web interface by going to http://alexa.amazon.com.

Once this has been done, you can upload your contacts to Alexa. If any of your contacts are also Alexa users and have also uploaded their contacts, you can call them by just saying “Alexa, call John Smith.” Alexa confirms the request and plays a repeating series of tones, to let you know that it is attempting to call John Smith’s Alexa device or app. Once John answers, you can talk with him by using the microphones from your Alexa device or your smartphone or tablet’s mic. When you’re ready to disconnect, you can say “Alexa, disconnect.”

You can also send voice messages by saying “Alexa, send a message to John Smith.” Alexa will prompt you to record the message and you can do so, although I believe there is a limit to the recording’s duration. You can also ask Alexa to play messages you might have and she will do so.
When a new message has been received, a series of two quick chimes is heard to alert you. If you miss those chimes, the unit will flash a series of lights, similar to how a phone or older answering machine provided similar alerts. For someone who is visually impaired, you can always just ask “Alexa, do I have any messages?” The audio quality, both for messages and for live calls, is quite good.

There is a valid concern about not being able to block specific people from contacting you, which I’m sure Amazon will address sooner rather than later.

Since this feature was released, the newly updated Alexa app for iOS seems much more stable and is far easier to use.

Also, Amazon has announced their new Echo unit with a touchscreen called the Echo Show. In addition to the Echo’s capabilities, it will also be able to play video and will be able to allow for video as well as audio communication, similar to Apple’s Facetime. The unit will cost $229.00 and will ship by the end of June. We’ve heard nothing as to whether the Voice View screen reader will be included for accessibility.

Windows 10 Creators Update/Next Phone Meeting/Philadelphia Computer Users Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired

On April 11, Microsoft released the next major update to Windows 10, which they have named the Creators Update. It actually became available earlier by April 5, for those brave and impatient souls who felt they couldn’t wait until April 11 to install it. I suppose I was one of those impatient souls because, on April 8, I took the plunge and installed the update using Microsoft’s Update Assistant Tool. I ran into some interesting hiccups, most of which are now solved and I am now using the Creators Update with NVDA with no real issues.
A lot has changed in this new update. While the update offers many welcome changes across the board, one of the biggest improvements which may be of interest to many visually impaired users are the additions to Narrator, which is starting to become a rather nice screen reader. It even offers some Braille support and allows you to fully install Windows without losing speech feedback.
You may be one of those who have already installed the Creators Update and may have some questions, comments or advice for the rest of us. Some of you may be considering moving to Creators and might have some questions before pressing the enter key on the button to begin the upgrade. Perhaps you’re still running an older version of Windows and are wondering if moving to this latest version is worth doing. Whether you’re using Creators, are thinking about using it or are just interested in what it can do and how it’s different from what you’re currently working with we’d love to hear from you. The Windows 10 Creators’ Update will be the topic for the next phone meeting of the Philadelphia Computer Users Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired. While this group was initially formed to provide support to consumers living in or near the Philly area, all are welcome to call in. If you don’t feel that you have any questions or comments you’re welcome to call in and just listen in and soak up the information.

Date: Friday, April 28
Time: 8:00 PM

(approximately 2 hours)

To participate, the number to call is

(712) 432-3900

When prompted to enter an access code, enter
391477
followed by the pound key.

I look forward to hearing from you.