Screen readers: what are they and how do they work?

A computer page showing JAWS for Windows home page.In the world of web accessibility people often talk about screen readers. But do you know what they are and how they work?  This is a very useful article for everyone who posts on a website. Nomensa blog explains that a screen reader is a software application that enables people with significant vision impairment to use a computer. They work with the computer’s operating system and common applications. It relays information either by speech or Braille. The majority of users control things with the keyboard, not the mouse. The article provides more detail of each of the operating systems that link with screen readers and the applications they support. If web pages are well structured and designed using a particular code, screen readers can interact easily. The article has additional links to other information. 

Vision Australia has a YouTube clip with a Jaws user explaining how it works for her. You’ll be surprised!


Typewriters: A device for vision loss

Close up of an old fashioned typewriter.Did you know that the typewriter was first invented by a woman who was losing her sight? This is a good example of how an invention for a disability can be good for everyone. The flexible straw and the touchpad are other such inventions. These are just three things in Kat Holmes’ book, Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design. You can read a review of the book published by MIT Press 
“Designing for inclusion is not a feel-good sideline. Holmes shows how inclusion can be a source of innovation and growth, especially for digital technologies”. It expands the customer base and boosts the bottom line. And this goes for any product or service, building or dwelling. 


Clever design for assistive devices

A mannequin bust with hands showing the bracelets and necklace for the GPS. At last some creative design thinking in assistive technologies. No, assistive devices do not need to look ugly and purely functional, but too often they are. The FastCompany website has an interesting article about technology designed to be discrete and not stigmatising. Probably the most interesting design is a robot disguised as a coffee table that is also a walking aid. Then there is the GPS navigator for people who are blind that is designed as bracelets. Not keeping up with the App world and the move from CDs to Spotify? There’s a device to help which is especially useful for people not born in the digital age. The link to the coffee table is well work a look.  


Tactile or 3D?

A metal model showing a town layout in relief with Braille on buildings and streets. There is a church and lots of houses and a town square represented.Three researchers from Monash University carried out a study to see if 3D printed models offered more information than tactile graphics such as maps. There were some interesting findings that were presented in a conference paper. The abstract gives a good overview:

Abstract: Tactile maps are widely used in Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training for people with blindness and severe vision impairment. Commodity 3D printers now offer an alternative way to present accessible graphics, however it is unclear if 3D models offer advantages over tactile equivalents for 2D graphics such as maps. In a controlled study with 16 touch readers, we found that 3D models were preferred, enabled the use of more easily understood icons, facilitated better short term recall and allowed relative height of map elements to be more easily understood. Analysis of hand movements revealed the use of novel strategies for systematic scanning of the 3D model and gaining an overview of the map. Finally, we explored how 3D printed maps can be augmented with interactive audio labels, replacing less practical braille labels. Our findings suggest that 3D printed maps do indeed offer advantages for O&M training. 

Paradoxically, the freely available PDF version is in two columns and in Times New Roman font – both aspects that are not recommended for people with low vision or for screen readers. The full title of the paper is, “Accessible Maps for the Blind: Comparing 3D Printed Models with Tactile Graphics”.  You can see a related article that found 3D models helped everyone’s understanding.