How Does a Blind Person Use a Computer or Smartphone, Anyway?

Throughout my day, both at work as well as going to and from work, a lot of people ask me about the type of work that I do. When I tell them that I test software, many of them are understandably curious and ask questions about how a blind person could use a computer, smartphone or tablet. Some people are curious but are a bit nervous about asking the question “how does a blind person use a computer?” If you’re curious about this topic, this page was written for you. I’d like to answer some general questions I often receive from people who want to know how such a thing is possible. If your question isn’t answered, feel free to email me and I’ll add it to this page.

 

Q. OK, so how *does* a blind person use a computer, anyway?
A. There are several ways in which this is done.
First, you need a program on your computer known as a screen reader. A screen reader does just what its name implies: it reads what is on the screen using artificial speech and the voice is heard from the computer’s speakers.

Q. Does the voice sound like a robot, like the one from “Lost in Space?”
A. No danger of that, Will Robinson. Actually, most of the synthetic voices used today are very pleasant and some of them sound remarkably human. I think we’re closer to voices sounding more like Hal from “2001: A Space Odyssey” rather than the robots from science fiction shows from the 1960’s.

Q. OK, so these screen readers read what appears on the screen? Is that all they do?
A. No. They can also speak what you type on the keyboard so you’ll know if you’ve made any mistakes. These programs can read each character you type, read just one word at a time as you type or they can be totally silent.

Q. Can these programs help you to review what’s already on the screen?
A. Absolutely. By using arrow keys, you can review anything on the screen character by character, word by word, line by line, sentence by sentence and even paragraph by paragraph. This allows a blind person to not only hear what’s on the screen but it also allows for editing as well.

Q. What about reading material from the Internet?
A. Easily done. Screen readers can access email programs such as Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird and others to compose and read email. We can also access Web browsers like Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Google chrome to read Web pages.

Q. What about making text and pictures larger or easier to see?
A. There are programs to facilitate this as well, such as MAGic from Freedom Scientific or Zoomtext from AI Squared.

Q. What about Braille? Can you use Braille to read what’s on a computer screen?
A. Yes. You would need a device known as a Braille display, which is a separate device that produces Braille. The Braille is not printed on paper but is produced electronically with tiny little pegs or pins which pop up on a grid
These devices can be costly, depending on how much Braille they actually present to the user. Examples are the Focus Braille displays from Freedom Scientific and the Brailliant displays from Humanware.

Q. OK, so how do you do all of this without using a mouse?
A. People with little or no vision can perform all mouse functions by using keyboard shortcuts. Many of these shortcut commands are not really part of the screen reader but are built into Windows itself. As an example, if a sighted person wants to open the start menu he or she would click on the start button, usually located on the bottom left-hand corner of the screen (unless they’re using Windows 8, of course.) However, pressing the Windows key (located next to the control key) performs the same function. In Word, pressing ctrl-S saves a document, ctrl-O opens a document, ctrl-P prints a document, etc.

Q. OK, you make references to Windows. What about Apple? Are Apple products accessible?
A. Actually, Apple products have more built-in accessibility right out of the box than Windows-based products. Whether we’re talking about a Mac, iPad, iPhone or an iPod Touch, Apple includes a built-in screen reader called VoiceOver which allows a blind person to use these products independently.

Q. Are you serious?
A. Not all of the time but I am when it comes to this stuff. If you own a Mac, press command-f5, which is a toggle for turning VoiceOver either on or off. On an iOS device, such as an iPhone, go to Settings, General, Accessibility and then tap VoiceOver to enable or disable VoiceOver. You can also just ask Siri to “turn on VoiceOver” or “turn VoiceOver off.” Just know that VoiceOver changes the way some gestures are used. As a big example, you need to double-tap on an item to choose it, rather than just a single tap.

Q. Wait a minute! iOS devices use a flat touchscreen. Don’t you need a keyboard to use them if you can’t see?
A. You can use a Bluetooth keyboard for an iOS device but I don’t regularly use one for my iPhone. Apple has designed things in such a brilliant way so that using the touchscreen with VoiceOver is extremely efficient and intuitive. No keyboard is really required, unless you’re typing a novel or a very long article such as this blog post.

Q. Does any of this apply to Android devices?

A. Yes. Android devices come with a built-in screen reader called TalkBack. You can download the latest version here.

Q. OK, what about Windows? Do Windows computers have built-in accessibility?
A. They have some built-in accessibility and later versions of windows offer more of it than earlier ones, but the built-in features are frankly not as robust as what you get with apple. To help compensate for this, there are third-party screen readers that you can get for your Windows computer to make it accessible for a blind person.

Q. Where can I get a Windows screen reader?
A. Several are available. First, there is a free screen reader called Nonvisual Desktop Access or NVDA. The voice that initially comes with it may actually sound like one of those robots from a campy 1950’s sci-fi movie but there are extra voices which you can purchase for NVDA which are more human-sounding.
In addition, you can purchase Window-Eyes from AI Squared or you can download it at no cost if you have Microsoft Office 2010 or later installed.
Another well-known screen reader in the blindness community is JAWS from Freedom Scientific.

Q. So, how does someone actually learn how to use this stuff?
A. Some people can figure it out on their own by reading the accompanying user manuals and by experimenting. There are also online forums and email-based discussion groups where blind computer users can ask questions to other users for quick help or advice. There are also technology trainers who are able to provide training, either in person or by phone. I am one such trainer and you can feel free to read more about the training that I am able to offer.

If there’s a question on this page that I haven’t answered or if you have follow-up questions, feel free to email me and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

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