The release of OpenOffice 4.1 is not only a good thing for sighted users but it is particularly exciting for computer users with visual impairments. Up until now, Microsoft Office and perhaps the WordPerfect suite were the only robust office programs which would work well with screen readers. Forgive this small diversion but I have to ask … does anyone use Wordperfect anymore? I haven’t actually known of anyone who has been using it and I’m curious.
I have nothing against these programs and, in fact, I use Microsoft Word and Outlook while I’m at work. However, these programs aren’t free and many consumers can’t easily afford them and they should be able to enjoy the same free alternatives as their sighted counterparts. OpenOffice now makes this a possibility, with Libreoffice soon to follow with their upcoming 4.3 release.
I’ve done a bit of preliminary testing with the latest versions of NVDA, JAWS and Window-eyes and I would like to report my findings, such as they are. As screen readers continue to evolve and incorporate further enhancements and bug fixes, this information will likely change and very quickly at that. I’ll post updates as this occurs. My testing was done using Writer, which is OpenOffice’s word processor similar to Microsoft Word and Calc, the spreadsheet similar to Excel.
NVDA is able to properly track menus and dialogs as well as properly reporting text at the position of the cursor or caret. When performing a continuous read command using the insert-down arrow command, I have noticed that NVDA consistently stops speech after reading a few lines of text. I think this has been going on for some time and I have reported this in the NV Access bug tracker and it appears as ticket 4119.
In Calc, NVDA reads cell data and coordinates properly as you move using arrow keys. When you enter data into a cell and then move away from that cell with arrow keys, NVDA reads extra data which it probably should not be reading. I’ve gotten so used to this that I simply press the control key and ignore it but I suppose it should be reported. I’ll try and get around to doing this today.
This latest build of JAWS 15, released on April 29 of this year, contains a fix to a bug that I reported to Freedom Scientific where JAWS was reading some odd messages while in Writer. In the previous build, support for Calc was inconsistent, with some cells being voiced while others were not. The latest build did a good deal of clean-up and JAWS seems to handle Calc beautifully. However, while in Writer JAWS reads the odd message “edit has flows to” when I move focus away from and then back to the text in the document editing window. As an example, while in a Writer document press the alt key to move focus from the document area to the menu bar. Press the alt key a second time to bring focus back to the document and you’ll hear the message. I have reported this issue to their technical support email address and they have responded to me very quickly and have asked to speak with me so that I can give them more information about the bug. It is my hope that the next build of JAWS will have a fix for this minor but noticeable issue.
window-eyes kept producing errors whenever I tried opening Writer. This issue was very consistent, even with the OpenOffice 4.1 beta. When I contacted GW Micro, the tech support rep that I spoke to indicated that the bug was not reproducible with a test build of the upcoming Window-eyes version. This is good news, as this should mean that the next version of Window-eyes should provide better support for OpenOffice.
As I don’t have copies of JAWS or Window-eyes loaded on my machine at home, my ability to perform testing with those screen readers is somewhat limited but I’ll certainly do more of it when I can and will provide an updated post as things change.
I would like to end this post by encouraging my readers to consider testing OpenOffice 4.1 with your screen reader or enlarger of choice. If you find a bug, please report it to the manufacturer of your access technology software. The more users report bugs the sooner we’ll have a robust, free and fully accessible office suite.