How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People
by Michael Feir
Copyright 2008 by Michael Feir
Special thanks to Sean Shaw, Geoff Eden, Richard Bowden, Richard Hadfield, Ron and Sylvia Schamerhorn. These good people took the time to review and make suggestions about improvements to the guide prior to its publication. They have caught numerous errors and given me a good many ideas for small but important improvements. Any remaining errors or shortcomings of this guide are my responsibility alone.
This document may be freely distributed in any format as long as the contents are not modified and the recipient user is not charged a fee. It is to be given and shared freely.
*Warning! By using this guide, you take full responsibility for any consequences resulting from the knowledge you gain from it. To make full use of your computer, for example, you'll need to know how to manage files. I am not responsible for what happens when that knowledge is misused to move files from their rightful place or to delete needed files. Power comes with responsibility and if you're going to have full control of your personal computer, you must accept that it falls upon you to use that power wisely. I take great pains in this guide to encourage people to think carefully about what they're doing and warn them when I discuss areas where they could potentially get into trouble. However, I cannot stop people from either ignoring my advice or misusing the knowledge this guide imparts. Knowledge is a tool. Like a hammer, it can be used both to build and to destroy.
I write this guide claiming no other professional expertise in this area except the nearly two decades of personal experience I've gained as a user of access technology. I represent no corporation and will not receive any money for this guide. It has been a labour of conscience and passion for the subject. I therefore accept no responsibility whatsoever for any damage done as a result of people getting in over their heads or acting with malice to harm another person's computer. You, the reader, must accept full responsibility for your own actions. If you can't do that, don't read any more of this guide.
Note: Now don't let this scare you. I'd divided the guide up into sections and subsections to make things easier for you. To assist with quick and easy navigation, the title of each section is preceded with two plus-signs in the line above it. Divisions within a particular section are preceded by a single plus-sign in the line above them. Using the search function of the software you use to read this guide, you can move quickly through the document by looking for the next or previous plus-signs. Lets take an example of how this works. Say you already have a computer which is hooked up to the Internet and you have a basic idea how to go places online already. I have a list of destinations I specifically picked out for less experienced blind folks to help make certain that their first experience online is both safe and encouraging. You can go to the "getting Online", section and look ahead for the single plus-sign. That gets you right to my list of destinations. And there you have it. A simple way of getting to the sections you want nice and speedy. Sighted users who print this guide for their reference should use a word processing program which can automatically add in page numbers. These numbers can break up the flow if the guide is being read via speech software. Braille formatting is completely different as well. These reasons prompted me to favour the guide's primary audience, blind owners of personal computers and not include page numbering.
2-- Clearing Up Windows for Blind People
2.1-- Rummaging in Dialogue Boxes
2.2-- Exercising Authority with Pull down Menus
2.3-- The Task bar and System Tray
2.4-- Built-in Help
2.5-- Navigating Files and Folders
2.6-- Surviving Software and System Crashes
2.7-- The Control Panel
3-- Getting Online
3.1-- Finding Your Way
3.2-- Initial Online Destinations
4-- Protecting Your Computer
5-- Maintaining Your computer and Data
6-- Taking It All In: Online Media:
6.1-- Listening To Music, Internet Radio and Video
6.2-- Pod casts
7-- Online Communities and Communication
7.1-- The Many Implications of Email
7.2-- Text and Voice Chat
7.3- Instant Messengers
7.4-- Blogs and Forums
7.5-- Virtual Conventions and Symposiums
8-- Online Shopping
9-- Computer Games
10-- Looking For Accessible Software
11-- Free Speech Access
12-- Final Reflections
Many people are in some way directly or indirectly responsible for inspiring me to write this guide. Far too many, in fact, to properly acknowledge all of them here. I'll therefore give credit where credit is due in the following manner:
First of all, I thank Dolores and Brian Feir, my parents. They've always stood by me and supported my various endeavours. In a world fixated on profit and earnings, they taught me that doing work which helps other people has its own rewards. I may not ultimately be able to earn a living but as long as I do my best to do things which benefit others, I'll look back on a rewarding life very well lived.
Consider this guide to be my small way of paying the debt of gratitude I owe to the many inspired teachers, friends and others who have shown me how to go beyond the basics and think outside of the box regarding computers and the Internet. My thanks to all of you who have taken the time to explain, commiserate, help me out of a mess often of my own making, and encourage me to do the same for others. Your patience, kindness and courage are all in these pages. Friends especially are quite often the best medium for transferring knowledge as they explore life and grow together. What initially look like disasters transform into triumphs where good will and positive thinking win through. May all of those new to the world of computers be fortunate enough to find and become friends such as I've found and tried to be.
I also write this guide in honour of the Blind Explorers of Access Technology team. These terrific people were all set to plunge into the fray and do some serious good if only circumstances had been more favourable. Wherever fate has tossed you, I hope your compassion for others and willingness to try has been properly rewarded. This written document is in a very real sense a legacy of all our dashed hopes. May it spread far and wide doing at least some of what we wanted to accomplish in person.
Finally, I would like to dedicate this guide to the Lake Joseph Centre and all who work and rest therein. This very special lodge was built and is supported by the CNIB and Lions Club. Both organizations saw the need for a place designed for blind people to be able to independently enjoy vacations and other character-building experiences. I've spent many pleasant weeks there since childhood and plan on spending many more. Every time I go there, I'm able to enjoy relaxation as well as find people who I can help in some way. For me, that's a truly restorative combination. It also provides an excellent place to sound out a good cross-section of the blind community discovering what we're all about and what needs remain unfulfilled. It was here that I received the idea and an often repeated request to write a guide for beginners. I hope that what I've written here meets all of your needs.
"I didn't know I could search the Internet!" "But I'm totally blind! There aren't games that I could play, are there?" "I thought I couldn't use any of that online chat software!" "You can actually get your groceries online?" Words like these, usually delivered in tones of amazed wonder, have haunted me for years. I hear them all too often from blind people who have been given or otherwise obtained accessible computers for their personal use. If you're sighted, it's all but impossible to be ignorant of the countless possibilities computers offer in terms of personal pleasure and growth. Mainstream media is filled with depictions of people using them for playing games, chatting online, searching the Internet, etc. The computer games industry has been with us for well over two decades. Not knowing about their availability would be very hard indeed. People who have lived through the past twenty years have grown up having the world of computers sold to them as an exciting place where plenty of opportunities for both work and pleasure were to be had. Sadly, blind people don't always share this experience. They are often left afraid to venture beyond what they have been shown how to do. Training is typically geared towards education or employment. Any personal leisure or other exploration is up to individuals. They are stuck with questions like:
"What activities are accessible?" "Might I screw up my computer by trying something different?" "Who can I turn to for help if I need it without having to pay a fortune?"
Many blind people are largely under the impression that computers are good for education and work only. Given the current extremely high unemployment rates experienced by the blind community, the magnitude of needlessly untapped potential caused by this mistaken belief staggers me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Essentially, computers and the Internet have given me a way of reaching out and having a positive impact on people. These tools plus my talents and effort have given me direction, enjoyment, purpose and meaning. If you're willing to invest the time it takes to become a competent user, these tools can help you in similar ways. Your computer is so much more than a mere tool for getting work done. It can deepen your personal life in countless ways. I'll show you how. Come with me on a journey of discovery into your computer's potential and that of the digital world.
This isn't a crash course or cram session. I hope you find my more leisurely approach helps ease any feelings of being overwhelmed by technology. I've filled this guide with my own personal experiences so that people who are new to computers and the Internet might better understand how these things can become a part of their own personal lives. It's much more a tourist book than a manual. You already have access to manuals. The problem with them is that they can be quite daunting to people particularly when they lack any personally appealing reason to make use of them. I've written this document to serve as your bridge of humanity to help you cross the digital divide. Reading it should provide you with a good basic overview of some new possibilities your personal computer can open up to you. You'll have a better foundation to know which sections of manuals might interest you and it won't be like jumping off a cliff into the completely unknown. Relax and enjoy the trip.
You don't have to read this entire guide from end to end or learn a ton of information over three or four tortuous training sessions. There's no clock to beat nor money to pay. Take as long as you like to learn what you choose to from this guide. We're all coming at this with different desires and different awareness of what's out there. While novices who read this guide will hopefully gain a good overall basic knowledge, others with more experience may find new pursuits they never thought of. Even veterans of the digital world will hopefully discover new sites to visit among the countless links I've included in Personal Power. I'm not expecting everyone who reads these pages to become the ultimate power-user. I just feel strongly compelled to make the road to computer competence easier for you than it was for me. What your personal interests are doesn't concern me. That you have a basic understanding and ability to use computers to pursue those interests does. I want more people to be aware of what their computers can do for them personally. If you choose not to use that knowledge, that's perfectly fine. However, to make an informed choice, that knowledge has to be available to you in the first place. Currently, given understandable but misguided societal priorities, I don't believe this is the case for many blind people. I hope to give you a proper sense of why you would truly want to take time to master your accessible computer and the Internet. That's my main goal with this guide; To make you aware of what's out there for you so you can decide what's worth reaching for.
Computers and the Internet are profoundly powerful tools. Even people who use them extensively like me can't possibly use their absolute full potential. There are aspects that simply don't interest me. That's true of everyone. There are, however, basic things which owners of computers ought to be aware that they can do and things which they ought to know how to do. I believe that every owner of a personal computer should at the very least know how to:
1. Protect their computer from attack if they have any thoughts at all of using the Internet.
2. Move, copy, and organize files.
3. Perform basic maintenance on their computers such as defragmenting their hard drives and doing a disc cleanup.
4. Recover from a system crash without assistance or needless panic.
5. Have a good general grasp of what their computer can do for them and what software they can use or obtain if they wish.
Sadly, there seem to be a great many people both blind and sighted who lack this knowledge. If you intend to make good use of your personal computer, you definitely need to have it. For users of the Microsoft Windows operating systems, I'll be going over those basics in my guide. Users of other operating systems will, I hope, at least know what knowledge they need to obtain from whoever provides the access alternative they've chosen.
Two years is quite a long time to work on something which I firmly believe must be given away freely to anyone interested if it is to have any impact at all on my target audience. Some of you out there will naturally wonder what I stand to gain from this. First and foremost, the clear conscience which comes of doing what is right. My life and circumstances place me in an ideal position to undertake this project. When one has a clear opportunity to effect good, it behooves us to take action. One way or another, we must all pay our dues in this world and keep the books of conscience balanced. Over the years, I've derived a great deal of enjoyment from labours of love given freely away by many other people. Also, I couldn't count the times that helpful and knowledgeable people have gone the extra mile for me when I needed help. There are those who think that people don't appreciate what they don't have to pay for. I've learned the error of that short-sightedness first hand. Despite extensive commercialization of the Internet over the past decade, a communal spirit of sharing still remains strong online. It is a joy to contribute my time and effort to bringing more people into that fold. I hope for a day when many more blind people will stand up and be counted online by writing blogs, participating in discussions, and initiating or contributing to larger collaborative efforts. As this happens, I believe it will help us achieve more in the offline world. It will also enhance the enjoyment I already get from being connected. Finally, I also hope that it will stand me in good stead as I embark on further projects which I hope to sell. These aren't strictly going to be for blind people's enjoyment only but they will be made in a manner fully accessible to them. There you are. My innate greed has been revealed in all its many lovely shades.
Before we get too far, I would strongly recommend you read sections 4 and 5 on protecting and maintaining your computer. The online world is open to everyone and this unfortunately includes criminals. There are also the digital equivalent of monsters lurking within this new realm of human endeavour. I'm completely serious about that. Viruses, worms, Trojans and spyware are no laughing matter. While I can warn you of the dangers, I can't protect you from them as much as I'd like to. The best I can do is direct you to defences you can use to protect yourselves. Even if you can't afford to pay for a commercial security package, there are steps you would be irresponsible not to take. If you go on to the Internet for any length of time without taking precautions, don't say I didn't warn you. For people whose training didn't leave them with a very good grasp of the basics of the Windows operating system, the next section will explain the desktop, start menu, and other fundamental elements. I don't intend to reinvent the wheel here. These very basic concepts are explained quite well in plenty of training material typically given with access technology. I just intend to give that little extra nudge to people who either don't know how to access these materials or just didn't have the motivation to bother using them.
Here are some of the other areas this guide will explore: Computer games have advanced tremendously since the early days of access technology. People can play car-racing games, arcade games like Pac-man, strategy and adventure games which are self-voicing and use sound rather than text to convey similar experiences to what sighted people can enjoy. I'll have a more in-depth section about the kinds available later in this guide.
Online shopping can be a very liberating addition to a blind person's life. It offers a degree of independence that can be very difficult to achieve otherwise. While shopping online, you are completely in charge of the experience. You can take as long as you like looking at item descriptions. Section 8 discusses the advantages of online shopping as well as doing it safely.
Here's another simple example. I like listening to music while I write. There are literally thousands of Internet radio stations broadcasting pretty much any style of music you could want. Mostly, they are free to listen to and there are very few if any commercials. All the software you need to tune in is completely free. A little time, patience and minimal effort are all you'll have to expend in order to enjoy your kinds of music while your at or near your computer. There are also video streams and podcasts of potential interest to blind people. Section 6 dives into the vast amount of online media and offers basic instructions you'll need to access it.
The most common eventual cure for the new computer user's shortage of knowledge and perspective is when they come into contact with the wider community of more experienced users. There are quite a lot of us out there who can and often will take the time to enlighten people about what we've either discovered or learned from others. This, in most cases, requires that novices have the courage and curiosity to go beyond their training at least enough to become proficient in using the Internet. The Internet is a fantastic bridge-builder and is your gateway to the shared collective outside-the-box experience of the world's blind community. Borders just don't matter anymore. You can talk for hours to somebody on the far side of the world without spending a cent on long-distance charges. A major section of this guide looks at various methods of communicating online such as email.
For people on a very tight budget, there are now a few different free screen reading programs available on the Internet. These are still very much in development and people shouldn't expect free screen readers to perform to the same standards as their expensive commercial counterparts. However, that being said, they are constantly being improved upon and all offer full access to basic computer activities and areas. Section 11 of this guide discusses free screen readers and their implications.
I hope this gives you an idea of the kinds of possibilities made available via accessible computers and the Internet. You don't need to add more hardware to the kinds of computers that are being funded in order to go on the Internet, listen to music or other streaming broadcasts, play games, shop, etc. You just need to know how to use what you've got already. Good skills with typing and knowing your keyboard are two areas which I can't recommend strongly enough that you work on. There are certainly typing courses and the like, but there are far more engaging and fun ways of attaining typing and keyboarding skills.
It is impossible for me to personally reach all the people who should be made more aware of the power at their command. I therefore ask you to extend my reach. Please feel free to give this guide to people who you think could benefit from reading it. The more people this guide empowers to pursue their own interests with their accessible personal computers, the greater the reward will be for my efforts. If you have the facilities to translate this guide into alternative formats like Braille or audio narration, you have my permission and deepest thanks for doing this. I ask only that you do not modify what I've said. As more blind people venture online and contribute to the vibrancy of that virtual world, they will spread the knowledge to others. Time and personal circumstances permitting, I'm always eager to hear from and help people where I can. Contact me via email at:
2-- Clearing Up Windows for Blind People
"Come on! Do I really have to plough through that extensive training material I got with my access technology?" Well I can't exactly hold a gun to your head and make you but you really ought to give that training material a look. It's written by very thoughtful experts in both the technology you have and in teaching you how to make the best use of it. They do a very good job of going over the basic concepts and are paid to be far more patient than I am. Many of you find the prospect of ploughing through such material to be more daunting than it actually is. What I hope to do in this section is not to recreate that already finely crafted wheel. Instead, I aim to give you that glimmer of understanding, that boost of confidence which will let you make your own more informed choice. Nobody can stop you from just deciding not to proceed any further. To simply give up and not look at the material provided you or the rest of this guide is the first option. I of course hope you don't choose it. If you're determined just to plunge in without benefiting from the aid of manuals and such, perhaps this brief overview of the elements of Windows will be enough of a push to get you started. You'll then be on the path I've chosen to tread over the years. I should warn you that this path is full of frustrations which could have been avoided by taking the time initially to get an overarching grasp on the fundamentals using the provided training materials. I hope you end up using this guide and the help provided to smooth your way.
One excellent source of more traditional and professional training is:
CathyAnne provides excellent online training and resources. She offers a free course on Windows XP fundamentals which has been pre-recorded. Just click on the links to hear the various parts. You can also participate in live online training programs which come with textbooks and other support. The Access Technology Institute has become a widely recognized authority in providing training to interested users as well as certified access technology trainers. You'll find in-depth courses on everything from Microsoft Windows to designing a web site. For people who are self-motivated and wanting a method of learning at their own pace, it's definitely the place to go for the kind of thorough training owners of personal computers ought to have. I'm just giving you enough of an understanding of Windows to get you started in this section. I'm far more interested in moving people beyond the basics and illustrating what you can do once you've gained a level of competence with your access technology. CathyAnne offers the kind of deep coverage of things such as the Microsoft Windows operating system which I slowly pieced together over years of informal experimentation. With her materials, it'll take you far less time.
You may also want to look at John Wilson's "From The Keyboard" tutorials and guides. They are now offered freely on the Internet and contain a great deal of useful information. You can find them at:
If you ever want to know how to do something or you get in to technical trouble, one excellent place to turn to is the Adaptive Technology helpdesk. This telephone hotline is run by the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. Anybody can call them for help using any kind of access technology as long as it has something to do with blindness or visual impairment. It doesn't matter whether it's for personal interest or work-related. Also, it doesn't matter where you are. Ray Campbell is the expert in access technology who runs this hotline. You can email him at:
or call him at:
Windows presents its users with what is known as a graphical user interface. The screen is divided up into different areas. The first thing you come to when Windows loads is what is known as the desktop. Just like a person's actual desktop, you'll find and place things on that surface which you think you'll want to use on a regular basis. My actual desk has a telephone, headset, speakers, the computer keyboard and monitor, Internet equipment, an external hard drive, a drink-holder, and a soapstone bear. For the curious, that last item makes a fabulous paperweight. Underneath the desk is a waste basket and a shelf containing other items used less frequently. While we're at it, I also have a shelving unit where yet more items may be kept readily available if needed. Essentially, Windows lets you set up your digital environment in precisely this way. The analogy is even more the case for sighted people than it is for users of access technology. We do everything by keystrokes so we don't have that same geographical sense of just zipping around here and there with the mouse and such.
Items are all represented by symbols called icons on the Windows desktop. People who can see use a mouse to focus on and activate these icons by "clicking" on them. Just as I might reach over and pick up the telephone to my right, they can move to and click on the icon which opens their email software. Once opened, the email software is in focus. It fills most of the screen and the desktop fades into the background. Sighted users may have these icons arranged any way they desire. This is less important for blind users as the tradeoff is between the convenience of having items on the desktop and the length of time it takes that desktop to load completely when you boot your computer. The more icons you have on your desktop, the longer it's going to take the computer to get everything loaded and looking sharp. If you ever need to get to your desktop quickly, there's a handy shortcut. If you press and hold down the windows key and then hit the letter d, you'll be taken instantly to the desktop. Another key combination you should be aware of is holding down the shift key and then pressing the tenth function key. This is the equivalent of an application key which many keyboards possess. If you use that while on the desktop but when no icons are in focus, you will be able to add new shortcuts and do other things beyond the scope of this section. To get to an icon on the desktop, type its first letter. This will cycle you through any icons which start with the same letter.
Lets look at your digital shelving where items less frequently used are placed. If you press the special key called the "windows" key found on most modern keyboards, you'll find yourself at what is known as the start menu. You can also get there with the control-escape keyboard combination. Think of it like the trunk of a tree. There are some items right on the tree trunk. Hitting the enter key on them will access the item directly. For example, pressing the enter key on "windows update" will take you directly to where you can check for and install updates for your computer. Each time you come to an item whose name includes the word "submenu" or something similar, these menus branch out of the start menu. Within those submenu's, you might find items even farther out like twigs on branches. Using the up and down arrows will move you through options in a menu or submenu. The left and right arrows should allow you to go into or out of the submenu's which branch off the start menu. Continuing to go either up or down within a menu or submenu will cycle through the items it contains starting over at the top or bottom depending on your direction of travel. Once you're in a submenu, you can palso press the first letter of the name of the option you want to go to. If no other option exists having a name with the same first letter, that option will be automatically activated without the need to hit the "enter" key to choose it. Otherwise, you'll cycle between any options with the same first letter and must hit "enter" to select the one you want. For example, one of the first menus you'll come to in the start menu is an item called "settings". This is a submenu so using the right arrow key should move you into that. This submenu contains items which help you configure your computer and other hardware connected to it. Feel free to look around. It's pretty hard to do damage by mistake. Just don't change any options until you're comfortable that you understand their results. From anywhere within the "settings" submenu, hitting the letter C will get you directly into an area called "control panel" which we'll be examining later.
You should also take a look through the "programs" menu. This is where you can get at any software you have installed and where any associated things like documentation are grouped together. Each company or program has an entry in the "programs" menu. That might activate the program itself or lead to a submenu of related items. I'm using a free program called Winamp at the moment to listen to music while working on this guide. If I go into the “programs” menu, I'll eventually come to a “winamp” submenu. In it, I'll find three items. One option is to actually run Winamp. Another is “what's new” which gives me an overview of any changes made in the current and previous versions of Winamp. The last option lets me uninstall the software if I so choose. That ought to help you understand how menus and submenu's work. Take some time to look through the menus and submenu's on your system. Things might work a bit differently depending on which version of Windows you have. The basics will be the same though. Your access technology might use slightly different terms to describe things to you.
Lets try selecting one of the items in the settings menu. Go to the start menu using the windows key or the control-escape combination. Next, go up or down until you come to the "settings" menu. Move right into that menu. If you're using Jaws, hitting the right arrow will get you into the settings submenu. Now, go up or down through the options until you come to "Task bar and start menu". Press the enter key on that and you'll arrive at the Task bar and start menu properties dialogue box. We've arrived at a simple but excellent example of what dialogue boxes in Windows are like.
2.1-- Rummaging in Dialogue Boxes
Dialogue boxes allow you to hold conversations with the software you find them in. They will pop up to inform you of information such as when an ongoing operation is taking place or when an error has happened. Many dialogue boxes allow you to set options which tell the software how to behave. The Task bar and start menu properties dialogue box lets you tell Windows how you want these two key elements to work. There are a number of controls commonly found in forms and dialogue boxes. These include checkboxes, tabs, radio buttons, combo boxes, and edit fields. The dialogue box I've chosen for us to examine contains two separate tabs. These tabs separate groups of related controls. In this case, one tab is called the "Task bar" tab and the other is called the "start menu" tab. You'll start out in the Task bar group of controls. To switch to the next group of controls, push the control-tab key combination. This will put you in the "start menu" tab. Hitting control-tab again will put you back to the Task bar tab. Within a tab, press the tab and shifted tab keys to cycle through the available items. While you're in the "start menu" tab, hit the tab key and you'll come to a pair of radio buttons. Radio buttons are called that because they behave like the buttons on an old-fashioned radio. Only one button can be active at a time. If one is chosen, the others are inactive. These let you decide whether you want the ordinary Windows start menu or whether you want a more classic one which looks and behaves like those found in earlier versions of Windows.
I personally find that the classic view makes using keyboard navigation easier. It used to be more necessary to change to classic styles with earlier versions of Jaws for Windows which is the screen-reading software I prefer. However, as of version 7.10, it is no longer necessary. I would assume that choosing the classic style of start menu may help simplify things for blind people using different access technology. There is also a "customize" button in the same control group. This is not a radio button. You have to press the space bar or the enter key in order to activate the button. It will let you add, remove and change things about your start menu. Until you're a bit more experienced, I recommend you don't make any changes other than to choose the classic style of start menu. To make this change permanent, continue to tab through the items in the control group. You'll encounter buttons labelled "ok", "cancel", and "apply". These three buttons will be present in most dialogue boxes. If you want to make changes permanent, you should always look for and activate the "apply" button. You should do this before you hit the "ok" button which will close the dialogue box. If you decide to cancel the changes you've indicated in the dialogue box, use the cancel button. It will cancel any changes made since you entered the dialogue box and will exit the dialogue box.
Checkboxes can be checked or unchecked. Pressing the spacebar while on a checkbox will either add a checkmark or remove one already present. You'll find these very often in dialogue boxes as they are a quick way of telling the software whether you want or don't want a given option. Combo boxes allow you to choose from a list of options either by moving to the desired option as with a list of options or by typing one or more letters of the option into the box. You'll often find combo boxes which let you set numeric levels such as when setting your computer's time and date. List boxes contain lists of options and can be moved through using the arrow keys. Holding down the control key and tapping the space bar allows the selection of one or more options to be made at once. For instance, you could select a number of files in a list box that you want copied. Don't let go of the control key until you're done selecting items. Edit fields allow you to type in whatever is required. This might be a registration code or a short description of a file. You will also encounter these elements on many web sites.
Some dialogue boxes will contain fields which can only be read and may not be modified at all. For instance, you might get a dialogue box with a read-only field which informs you that you have chosen a number out of the acceptable range or that you've made an error while selecting options and need to fix it.
These elements all make for a fairly intuitive way of communicating with the software on your computer. There's never any need to rush while in a dialogue box. Take your time and explore your options. Until you hit the "apply" button and then hit "ok", no changes you make are permanent. You'll be dealing with many of these dialogue boxes so take the time to get comfortable with the basic control elements I've gone over here.
2.2-- Exercising Authority with Pull down Menus
Within most Windows applications, you will be making extensive use of Pull down menus. These give you access to options within the software. Each Pull down menu has options related to its title. There are typically file, edit, view, and tools menus. Some programs such as word processors may have more Pull down menus. When you access a Pull down menu, using the up or down arrow will cycle up and down the options. Imagine you have a set of blinds covering your windows but that some fool as gone and sliced the blinds into vertical sections. A Pull down menu is like one of those vertical sections. It can be pulled down and will overlay part of the window or screen. Only one such menu can be active at a time. You can't simultaneously select something in the file and edit menus for instance. The file menu will disappear when you move over into the next menu. The slat of those sliced up blinds which was the file menu will retract into its fully rolled up state and you'd have to move back into the file menu to pull it down again. This would let the edit menu retract. Here's how to use these menus:
First of all, you have to tell the application that you want to go to the Pull down menus. This can be done by hitting the alt key and letting it go. Assuming we're dealing with a standard application, you'll find yourself in the leftmost Pull down menu. This is usually called the "file" menu. To go into that menu, hit the down arrow key. Work your way down through the options. Once you're familiar with their order, you might find going up instead allows you to reach an option more quickly. Let's say the file menu isn't what you're after. Hit the right arrow and you'll go to the next menu. This may be the edit or view menu. Once you've found the option you want, the return or enter key will select it. It's pretty much that easy. Some options will lead you into submenu's with more options. In this case, hitting enter or the right arrow will get you into a submenu. Hitting the left arrow will close the submenu and you'll be back on the Pull down menu the submenu branched off from. The escape key will get you out of the Pull down menus and back to your application.
In many programs, you may find some entries in Pull down menus which open up dialogue boxes where further options can be chosen. For instance, you'll often find an "options" entry in the "tools" menu of word processors or web browsers. It can pay large dividends in terms of less frustration if you take some time to explore all the Pull down menus of an application before you start to use it seriously. I've helped many people, both sighted and blind, by informing them of options which they could themselves have found had they taken the time to truly look around the applications they strove to use.
2.3-- The Task bar and System Tray
In simple terms, multi-tasking is doing more than one thing at once. Unless it's extremely old, your computer will have the capacity to let you do this extensively. Keeping track of what software you have running is made far easier with the aid of the Task bar and system tray. As I work on this section of the guide, I've instructed my computer to do a lot of other things. A nifty piece of free software called Winamp is continuously selecting and playing random pieces from my growing collection of instrumental music. I also have my email client of choice, Outlook Express, open and periodically checking for any new email messages. Additionally, I'm currently downloading a book from the digital library of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. As always, my AVG Internet Security software is running in the background keeping watch for any intrusions or other threats. Most of the time, my attention is primarily focused on Jarte which is my current word processor of choice. Should I need it, I have a wonderful dictionary/thesaurus program running in the background awaiting my plea for enlightenment. For the curious, this software is called The Ultimate Talking Dictionary and can be purchased at:
In a very real sense, it's like having a personal staff at your command. The Task bar is where programs which need to be where your primary attention is directed reside. They're your front-line workers who you'll be interacting with the most. These programs are where you do your main activity. For example, Jarte is located on my Task bar if I've switched temporarily to my Internet browser in order to start downloading the next of the many mp3 files which comprise the book I'm going to read soon. After I've started the file downloading, I can use the Task bar to quickly move back to Jarte and continue writing this guide. Winamp is also on my Task bar. It can also reside in the system tray but I've always preferred it to be in my Task bar as I like to have it be the centre of focus when I decide to do anything more than skip a piece of music or pause it to answer a phone call. When you're on the Task bar, hitting the left and right arrow keys moves you between applications. Hitting the enter key will move you into the application you're on so that it has focus and will be active. To get to the Task bar quickly, hit the windows key and then hit the tab key to move from the start button onto the Task bar. Think of it like a speedy rail service between work sites you may need to access frequently.
Somewhat similar to the Task bar is the system tray. It is where you can obtain access to applications running in the background. Think of these like your watch or your staff behind the scenes. They're things which are constantly standing by and performing an action which you may need at any time. These programs run quietly in the background unless you need to interact with them due to circumstances. My system tray has four items in it at the moment. The first item is an icon for my AVG Internet security software. It's constantly on the lookout for possible threats as I run applications and make use of the web. The next item is the volume control. Should I need to make adjustments there, I have a fairly rapid means of accessing the various volume controls and options. The Ultimate Talking Dictionary, my dictionary and thesaurus program, is also represented in the system tray ready for that painful instant's notice when I just can't think of the right word. The last item is for assisting in the safe removal of any external hardware I might have attached. Currently, I have an external hard drive connected to my computer for storage of files I don't need to have right on the computer's hard drive. Above these items is an area called the notification area. This is where you'll sometimes find messages telling you that updates are ready to be installed or that you have new email.
To get to the system tray, you can use the windows key-b combination. However, your screen reader might have special facilities to improve the ease of access to this area. For Jaws users, holding down the insert key and pressing the f11 key will take you to this. You will be able to right-click or left-click items without the need to use a mouse. Right-clicking on items will typically bring up a context menu in which you'll find options pertaining to the application of interest. For instance, right-clicking on the volume icon will bring up a context menu which can take you to your computer's audio properties among other things. If you're using a screen reader without any special facilities for dealing with the system tray, use the applications key to access those context menus. Hitting the enter key or left-clicking with the mouse will usually fully open an application residing in the system tray. For instance, when I do this to the AVG Internet security control panel icon in the system tray, the full control panel opens into a normal application which will have focus. I can then fully access all of its features rather than the more limited options available to me from the context menu from the system tray.
2.4-- Built-in Help
For Windows users, the f1 key is normally the key used to enter a program's online help. It is one of the most important things for people wanting to teach themselves to know about. Over the years, I've made extensive use of online help and have generally found it to be very concise and more than adequate to the occasion of need. The online help gives you enough of a brief explanation of a topic for you to make progress or understand a concept. It isn't a replacement for a full user manual. It's for folks who just want to quickly learn how to do something or about a particular aspect of the software. For instance, you might want to learn how to organize your messages in Outlook Express. My first step is hitting the f1 key while in Outlook Express. This opens the software's built-in help. I'm left on a tree view whose first topic is an introduction to the software. I don't need that so I start downward using the down arrow key. I come to a branch called "reading messages". I hit the right arrow to open that branch and then head down to the various twigs which are topics. In short order, I come to "organizing messages". Hitting the enter key selects that topic. Since I use Jaws for Windows, I next must hit the f6 key to get from the tree view to the topic I've chosen. There, I find a page which gives me a brief introduction followed by direct links which take me to any topics of interest. I need only hit the enter key on the link about deleting messages to learn all about doing that. Another link teaches me about using message rules to move messages into separate folders. Yet another link gives an overview of how to block unwanted messages. When I'm done with that topic, hitting the f6 key again will get you back into the tree view. You can usually get out of help by hitting the alt key, holding it down and hitting the f4 key. This is known as a key combination and there are many of these you can use to get things done more quickly. Other access technology may require you to use slightly different methods for accessing help. Make certain that you learn how to access this either during your initial training if you have that or from whoever you've obtained your access technology from. It's one of those truly vital things you should know.
You should also find out whether your access technology of choice comes with more built-in help as this may often be more relevant to your situation as a blind computer user. Jaws for Windows, my screen reader of choice, provides an abundance of this sort of what is called "context sensitive help". If I need to know how to use something like a combo box or other Windows element, I can hold down the insert key and hit the f1 key. I will then get a brief helpful explanation if one is available for my current circumstances. This has usually been all I've needed in order to proceed with what I was doing.
Particularly in situations where personal training is either too expensive or unavailable, These built-in help resources will be crucial to you getting the most out of your computer. I hope this brief explanation will encourage you to make use of them. Until you're able to get onto the Internet, this help in addition to whatever technical support staff you're entitled to call may be all you have to turn to during quandaries. Once you're on the Internet and have an Email address, your options for getting help will open up tremendously. The next major section deals as extensively as is possible with that process. Before we get to that point, three more important stops await our attention in our speedy tour of Windows basics.
2.5-- Navigating Files and Folders
Now, we turn our attention to files and folders. Windows operating systems store files in their own folders to keep everything organized. An icon on your desktop called"My computer" will let you examine and manipulate the contents of your hard drives. You can also reach this area by using the windows e key combination. That is hitting the windows key and holding it down while pressing the letter e. This will bring you to a very important area known as "my computer" or "windows explorer". This is where you can manage your files and any drives including hard drives and removable storage such as flash drives. What you'll find is a tree view beside a list view. You will always start at the "my computer" branch of the tree view. From that branch, you can go both up and down. Above "my computer", you'll find a branch called "my documents" and another above that one called "desktop". These branches are called folders. When you move to a branch, the contents of the list view change to reflect the contents of the branch you now occupy. Some items in the list view might themselves be folders. Pressing the enter key on such a folder will make that folder be where you are on the tree view. The list view will fill with the folder's contents.
Before we get any farther, we should first make certain we're all on the same page. The information in this area can be presented in some different ways. In an effort to make things more simplified, I'll take you through how to set this view up the way I have it. In the process, you'll learn why you might want to change this to better suit you and how to make such changes.
The first step is to go to your hard drive. To do this, you have to go downward in the "my computer branch making certain first that it is open. It will likely be so by default. If it isn't, just hit the right arrow key and it'll open. Next, hit the down arrow to start going through the contents of "my computer". You may have a floppy drive. If there's no disc in it, your computer might seem to freeze for a moment as this drive is checked for contents. You may have to hit a cancel button which you can get to via tabbing if necessary. However, chances are that you'll end up safe and sound on the c drive. This drive is usually the master hard drive of your computer. Once on this drive, hit the alt key and go over to the "view" menu using the right arrow key. Go down until you come to an option called "detail" and hit the enter key on that. This will make certain that items are organized in a single line. You won't miss anything because you didn't think to look left and right. You'll also find it easier to manipulate groups of files if they're all in a single line. Going one option further down brings you to a submenu which allows you to sort items in various ways. I prefer to have my folders organized to show the most recently modified file on the bottom. However, you might prefer to have your files organized by type of file or simply in alphabetical and numerical order via their names.
Once you've done all that, hit the alt key and go all the way over to the "tools" menu. Go down to "folder options and hit the enter key". There, you'll find you're placed in the "general" page. This has a couple of sets of radio buttons. You should set your system to use classic windows folders. The other setting I have is likely a default option to have a single click select items and a double click open them. The other tab in this dialogue box which might be of eventual use to you is the "view" tab. I have changed a few settings in there. For instance, I have it set to remember each individual folder's settings in case I find a reason to have a folder behave differently than others. You can learn more about these settings as well as the "file types" tab on your own via the Windows help system. These options are beyond what a beginner will need but certainly may prove useful as you become more of an advanced user. As usual, don't meddle with what you don't fully understand until you've at least noted down what the settings are so you can return things to that state if you have to. There is actually a button you can use to restore things in this dialogue to their default state called "restore defaults". Remember that to effect any changes you make, use the "apply" button before hitting the "ok" button.
Now that we've gotten all that sorted out, it's time to quickly cover how to manage files and folders. Files are stored on your hard drive or storage media in folders. When you go to one of your hard drives on "my computer", that is actually a folder which contains all of the contents of the drive known as a "root". Within that folder are a number of files as well as other folders which might well contain yet more folders. Think of a tree with branches which each have smaller branches which each have twigs and then leaves. To get to the files or leaves, you first have to go onto the right branch and twig. One thing to be aware of is that the folder known as "my documents" is a bit of a special case. It's a regular folder like any other except that each user of a computer is given his or her own such folder. As a result, you won't find the "my documents" folder by looking down the list of folders on your main hard drive. Instead, you'll find that folder as well as the desktop by going upward above the "my computer" folder. This makes it easier for a computer to be shared among multiple users.
When you first get your computer, there won't be any files or folders suitable for your experimentation. Until you have a good grasp of what's there and what it all does, don't delete or move anything. This is one of the few areas in this guide where I'll ask you not to meddle with things you don't understand. By deleting the wrong thing, you could accidentally render software inoperable. I don't believe in making extra work for people so I won't ask you to create a bunch of files to get the hang of things with. I'll simply explain the basics so you're ready to keep your files organized when you have some.
As I explained before, folders on your hard drive are where you'll find and add files. There is the root folder which has folders branching off of it. These branch folders may contain one or more folders branching from them as well as files. For instance, I have my root folder called "c:". One of the many branches leading from it is called "music". I don't go to the organizational extremes some folks do with my large collection of mp3 files. Some people make a separate folder for each artist and have each album in its own folder branching from the particular artist. They further divide these into folders for different styles of music. I divide my music into instrumental music and songs. If I have many pieces of music from a single artist or band, I may decide to put them all in a separate folder. For the most part though, I tend to just stick everything in either "songs" or "instrumental". While I'm writing, I tend to listen to instrumental music as songs have a way of jarring my flow of creative thought. When I'm relaxing, I'll listen to all kinds of music. If I'm entertaining guests, I stick to songs only as this seems to be more conducive to a social atmosphere. All I have to do is tell Winamp, the audio playing software I prefer, to play music from either the "music" folder or the "songs" or "instrumental" folders. One problem is that I can often end up with songs in the "instrumental" folder and occasionally, instrumental pieces in the "songs" folder. This is especially true with film scores or game soundtracks which frequently feature both styles of music.
When I purchase new music, I tend to grab a whole lot from a given artist or band at once. I have a folder made where anything I download is initially placed on my main hard drive. Naturally, this folder is simply called "downloads". The first thing I tend to do is copy these files onto my external hard drive into the most reasonable folder for whatever I just purchased. Recently, I bought the mp3s of the music from the first Narnia film. I'm actually not a big Narnia fan but found the music in the show quite nifty. Of course, it's mostly instrumental music so I copied it all into the "instrumental" folder. To move files, you first have to select them. I have hundreds of files in my "downloads" folder and only the last sixteen or so comprise the Narnia soundtrack. I have my folders organized so that the most recent additions are at the bottom. Therefore, I found the first file belonging to the Narnia soundtrack. I then held down the shift key and pressed the "end" key. This selected all of the files I wanted to copy. Sometimes, files you want to move won't be consecutively in order. In that case, you can select files by holding down the control key while moving up and down with the arrow keys. Keep the control key held down until you're done selecting files. To select or unselect a file, tap the space bar. When you're done selecting files, let go of the control key. Next, decide whether you want to copy or paste the files into a different location. You might also want to delete files. That's a simple matter of hitting the "delete" key. You may be asked whether you're certain you want to delete the files.
Copying files means that the originals are left unchanged where they are and that copies of them are made and placed in the new location. To tell Windows that you want to copy files, after you've selected them, hit the control c key combination. Once that's done, move through the tree view to the folder where you want the copies to be placed. Tab so that you're in the list view. Finally, hit the control v key combination. That's v as in victor. This tells windows to paste the contents of the clipboard which are the files you selected before hitting control c. If you want to move files from one location to another, The only difference is that you hit the control x key combination after selecting the files or contents to be moved. That's right. You can do this same thing to pieces of text in a word processing document. You can also copy and paste information from a web site or other programs and paste it into a document or another input field. Nifty, isn't it?
Anyhow, getting back to my example, the first thing I do is select the sixteen files I'm interested in. Once that's done, I want to copy them to my external hard drive. Therefore, I hit control c. The files are now in the clipboard and ready to be copied. I go down my tree view of folders onto the e: drive which is my external drive. I go into the "music" folder on it and into the "instrumental" folder where I tab into the list view and then hit the control v key to place copies of the files there. The files are still in my clipboard and will remain so until I select something else and either copy or cut that. I take advantage of this by next going to the "instrumental" folder on the c: drive and press the control v key while in its list view to copy the soundtrack there as well. My next step is to move the few songs in that soundtrack to the "songs" folder on my c: drive. I'm not going to bother doing this with my backup drive. However, I don't want to hear the songs when I'm expecting instrumental music while writing. Going into the "instrumental" folder, I navigate its list view until I reach the first file in the Narnia soundtrack. I then hold down the control key and start moving downward through the files. When I come to a song, I tap the spacebar to select that file. I end up with three files selected when I release the control key. I want to cut and paste these files rather than copy them so I hit the control x key. I then go into the "songs" folder within the "music" folder and go into its list view where I press the control v key combination. The files are moved into that folder and are no longer in the "instrumental" folder.
That pretty much completes our basic lesson in file management. It's quite safe to practice navigating through the tree view and list view to your heart's content. Just don't copy or cut and paste anything you haven't created. At best, you could waste a lot of space. At worst, if you cut and pasted parts of programs from their rightful places to somewhere else, you could do quite a bit of damage by preventing them from working correctly. In most cases, Windows should warn you before you do something potentially damaging on a large scale. You can't accidentally do something which would, for instance, render your computer inoperative. However, it might be possible to render your access technology unworkable which would basically amount to the same thing. Before you move or delete anything, have a good idea what it is and what it's for. It's very important to take responsibility for your own computer.
2.6-- Surviving Software and System Crashes
Anybody who's used Windows for any length of time has doubtless experienced a moment such as I did during my final year at university. I was finishing up one of my last assignments of the year. It was well into the early hours of the morning upon which the paper was due. Oh come on! You know how that goes. Each year, you say to yourself: "I'll do things better this year and not leave things hanging until the last minute again." A major problem with earnest promises to oneself like these is that they fail to take many mitigating factors into account which would cause all but the most obtusely conscientious and studious scholars to break them. I'm talking about those once in a lifetime opportunities which suddenly present themselves right around when a paper is due. A chance to see a great movie with a bunch of campus friends or that fantastic keg party your fellow students decide to hold. You get the idea. I had obviously cast aside my better judgement and had leapt at one or more such opportunities. Now, I had to engage in the time-honoured student tradition of burning the post-midnight oil in a last-ditch attempt to pull off a nicely polished paper. It's called paying the piper...very dearly.
To keep my mind stimulated, I had Winamp playing music in the background. It was still early days for that program and on top of that was my speech software and Outlook Express. That was quite a lot for my little laptop to handle at the time. Caught up in the creative rush born of desperation, I hadn't saved my nocturnal strivings in quite some time. At least four hours of work were suddenly placed in high jeopardy of being lost when Windows95 decided to crash on me. That dreaded dialogue box opened to inform me that my system had experienced a fatal error and needed to restart. I won't lie to you here. I went through that heady cocktail of horror, anguish, desperation, the willingness to do whatever penance the flipping universe demanded of me in order to save my work, etc. Believe me when I tell you that I can completely sympathize with people who panic in such circumstances. I've been there too. Those words, "fatal error", can certainly have the effect of inspiring dread. Due to the frigging early time of day, I couldn't even yell in frustration.
Fortunately, I had been in a far less high-stakes situation earlier where another less critical document was at risk of being lost. After the initial moment where my emotions held sway, this occasion came back to me. I had discovered a little-known truth about Windows. Crashes don't always completely stop everything else from working. Nothing had gone wrong with Microsoft Word where my work was being done. However, the dialogue box which informed me of the fatal error was preventing me from accessing Microsoft word fully since it dominated the screen. Fortunately, I had memorized the file saving dialogue box in Microsoft Word and was able to save my work despite not getting audible feedback for my actions. I then closed everything down that I could and proceeded to restart my system.
Eventually, all users of Windows operating systems will experience this sort of thing. It comes with the territory. Having used the Windows operating system since my days in university, I'm a seasoned veteran of these at times supremely exasperating moments. My first such occasion has long since faded from memory. The trappings of a program or system crash are somewhat dependant on the circumstances. This is also the case when it comes to appropriate measures for dealing with a crash. However, there are a few tried and true rules and observations I can share with you to lessen the trauma. The most important thing of all was illustrated well by the personal disaster I shared with you above. It does you absolutely no good whatsoever to panic and act before thinking.
Keep as clear a head as possible and evaluate what has happened. Restarting your computer immediately is only occasionally actually necessary. In particular, listen to the name of whatever has crashed and think about what it is. If an application you are running such as your music player has crashed, you will simply have to hit the "close" or "ok" button to acknowledge that you've read the dialogue which has alerted you to this situation. After the program has closed, you can then run it again and things ought to work normally. There's no need to restart your whole computer. The same is true if your word processor decides to bite the big one. In that case, you'll potentially lose any unsaved work. However, once the application has closed, you can just run it again. Chances are that it will present you with a document containing recovered material. However, it's best to get into the habit of saving your work often or setting your word processor the task of doing that for you. Most good word processors will have that option. If you maintain your system well, truly serious crashes ought to be fairly rare. The most you will have to do given normal circumstances is simply restart your computer.
Rather than go right for the power switch, you may want to try shutting down normally. If Windows is allowed to properly shut down, it has time to tidy things up. There are some circumstances where it is impossible to shut down Windows normally. In such cases, you'll need to manually force your computer to shut down and/or reset depending on the buttons available on your computer tower. If you push the power button and nothing happens, don't panic. Your computer isn't rebelling and fighting for its life. It's a safety feature to prevent accidental shutdown of your system. Hold the power button pressed for up to ten seconds. Within that time, your computer will perform an emergency shutdown. You can then hit the power button again and your computer will begin the recovery process. If you need to either manually turn off your computer or use the reset button, Windows doesn't have time to clean things up and will have to check for any serious problems with the hard disc when you reboot your computer.
The recovery procedures incorporated into Windows systems are quite good. I've only ever ended up with a completely useless hard drive when the hardware actually wore out due to extensive use. Just remember that it will take a while to implement them particularly if you have a large hard drive. I've had my system take around half an hour to go through this process after a particularly serious crash. When you reboot after having to either reset or manually shut down your computer, you won't hear the familiar Windows theme. The recovery process will simply start and silently run its course before anything else is loaded. Believe me. I know how tense and nerve racking that can be. Chances are very unlikely that it'll take even close to half an hour in most circumstances. Give it at least fifteen minutes before you perform a second emergency shutdown and restart.
To minimize crashes, it is important that you keep your operating system and software up to date. You can have Windows automatically check for and download critical updates for you if you're connected to the Internet. Alternatively, you can go to the Windows Update site and have more control over what gets downloaded or installed and when this happens. I strongly prefer this method. In addition to critical updates, I can check for any non-critical hardware and software updates which might improve my computer's functioning. I also have full control over when things are installed so nothing else I might be doing will be interfered with. You can also have Windows automatically check for and install critical updates for you. This is one of many items we'll be looking into in our final stop on this basic tour of Windows.
The Windows task manager can also be very helpful. You can access it by using the control shift escape key combination. Hold down the control key plus the shift key plus the escape key. Assuming you're able to access this utility when one or more programs stop responding, you can force the crashed programs to close. This frees up memory for the remaining software to use. Sometimes, however, a crash will be so severe that you won't be able to use this approach. It's always better to close programs down naturally when possible. Once you've gotten into the task manager, you'll find yourself in the list of applications currently running on your computer. Move through the list with the up and down arrow keys. When you find the offending program, tab once and you'll find yourself on a button called "end task". Hit the space bar or enter key and it will attempt to do this. The task manager has quite a lot of options in there as well as other tabs in addition to the "applications" tab. You can also look at and end processes which might be causing problems in the "processes" tab. Don't do this kind of thing lightly or you could lock up or destabilize your system and have to restart. A lot of things in the "processes" tab are things running behind the scenes like some components of your security software. You'll also find any programs such as word processors, speech access, etc which are in your "applications" tab. Those are the two tabs you'll likely be using in the event of unresponsive programs. There are also tabs which let you view statistics on your computer's performance, networking communications, and the users on your system. Take the time to look at the Pull down menus available in the task manager. One potentially useful Pull down menu is the "shut down" menu which lets you turn off, restart, or log off among other things.
Should you ever do something you dearly wish you could undo, Windows provides a utility which will let you take back that rash change. This utility is called "system restore". It has saved my behind more times than I'd care to admit. Some space on your hard drive will be used to maintain snapshots of your system. Typically, ten percent of your hard drive space is reserved for this. It's a very small price to pay for the ability to effectively turn back time. If only the rest of life let us get away with that. The more space you allow system restore to make use of on your hard drive, the more points it can maintain for you to restore your system to. In practice, I have never felt that I should alocate more than ten percent of the space on my hard drive to this. If you need to change the space available to system restore or disable this function entirely due to some virus infecting your computer or similar circumstance, go to the "system" option in the control panel. You'll find a series of tabs. One of these is devoted to the system restore option. You can disable or enable the functionality and also set the amount of hard drive space available to system restore.
Making use of system restore is relatively simple. Just take your time and pay careful attention. The interface of this utility is essentially a web page. You can read it easily with your up and down arrow keys or other reading commands. The initial page you start on briefly introduces the service and provides links to further information and help. You will find a group of radio buttons. Selecting the appropriate radio button so that it is checked will let you restore your system to an earlier time, create a restore point, or undo your last restore. Most often, you'll be using the first of these options. If you can use it, you'll have no trouble with using the other two options.
Alright then. Let's say you've just made what you thought would be a good change and have found that you have in actuality messed things up considerably. Your speech software won't read the screen correctly but will still let you use the start menu. This has happened on several occasions to me. The first thing to do is go to the programs menu and into the accessories submenu. From there, go to the system tools submenu. Finally, go to the option which says "system restore". Once you hit the enter key on that, you should be taken to the system restore welcome page. First of all, we go down the page to the radio buttons and make certain that the first one is checked. That's the button for restoring your system to an earlier time. Next, You can either hold down the alt key and press the letter n or go down to the "next" button and hit the space bar or enter key when your cursor is on the button to activate it. This takes you to the page where you must select the restore point you want to use.
This calendar is the most challenging part of the process. You have to read down the page until you come to the list of restore points. Below the calendar, you'll find one or more restore points made by your system when things have happened. You can move backward to previous months by clicking on the button above the name of the current month and advance by using the button below the month name. These buttons are labelled by Less Than and Greater Than symbols but whether you hear that depends on your punctuation settings. As I look down my page of the current month's restore points, I find one which was made at 2:14 PM when my security software was updated. Jaws indicates that this entry is "clickable". That means that hitting the enter key while on it should select the entry. You can then hit the "next button or alt n. This is the last page before your system will be restored. Near the top of the page, you should see the restore point you selected. You will be instructed to save anything you're working on before continuing. The restoration process will take a moment to gather necessary information. It will then shut down and restart your computer as part of the restoration process. Be patient here. It'll take longer than it normally does to restart. If all goes well, you'll soon find yourself up and running. You'll be on a page which informs you that the restoration is complete and gives you a chance to undo the process if you desire. You can simply close the page and continue using your computer. Not so scary after all, is it?
Well, folks, that's a quick overview of the techniques and tools I'm familiar with for dealing with crashes and recovering from those miscalculated moves we all make from time to time. I've prepared you as well as a guide like this can. People who use other operating systems should be certain they find out about similar facilities available to them. When things go wrong, you now have the knowledge to hopefully avoid getting into trouble you can't get out of. If you remember nothing else, remember to play it cool and don't let emotion carry the day.
2.7-- The Control Panel
When it comes to teaching new people how to use their personal computers, many trainers take a very conservative approach and don't teach people about things which might let them mess up their computers if their clients act irresponsibly. I've therefore met people who have been left unable to install new software or make any major changes to their own machines because they weren't set up as the owners of their computers. Instead, they had been given low-level user identities. In effect, they were left hostage to another person's judgement that they couldn't make responsible decisions about what to change or install. This might also occur when parents or whole families are sharing a single computer. On the whole, I take the position that the owner of the computer should have full control over it. However, I've met people who even I would hesitate to teach certain things to. Due to being very young, mentally challenged or for other reasons, they are very likely to get themselves into trouble no matter how conscientious the teacher might be.
To make full use of the Windows control panel, you'll need to be logged in as the owner of the computer you're using. If somebody else is already in that position, you'll have to convince him or her that you are indeed responsible enough to use the powers granted to system owners or administrators wisely. Unless you have a clear idea of what you're doing, don't mess around. The Windows control panel is where you can make changes to how your system behaves, how resources such as memory are used, and much more. It is certainly possible to make changes which could render your computer inoperative without expert sighted assistance. Users of access technology should be particularly careful making changes to display settings among other things. In my experimentation, I have sometimes made such changes and then been unable to read the screen properly with Jaws for Windows. The system restore utility has been my salvation countless times. Before you make any extensive changes in the control panel at all on your own, I strongly recommend that you become familiar and comfortable with using this extremely valuable utility. I discuss it in some detail at the end of the preceding subsection which deals with surviving system and software crashes.
The control panel presents itself as a folder. While you can use the view menu to alter how the items in that folder are displayed, you cannot do other things like move, delete or copy the items. Press the enter key to select an option. Each option will take you to a dialogue box which lets you control a certain aspect of your system. In these dialogue boxes, after you have made any changes, use the "apply" button which you'll find past the "ok" and "cancel" buttons to make your changes permanent. After you hit the "apply" button, you should then hit the "ok" button. To cancel any changes you have second thoughts about, hit the "cancel" button.
There are a great many options in the control panel. The exact number depends somewhat on the hardware and software installed. I have thirty-four entries in my control panel. Needless to say, I'm not going to take you through each one here. Instead, I will point out some of the options likely to be useful for novices. I will also take a moment to warn you not to go into either the display settings or the system options unless you're following clear instructions or have a very good idea what needs to be changed. This is particularly the case with the advanced options in the system dialogue. You could render your computer unable to start at all by messing with options in there. It gives you access to how memory is used, controls to various hardware including your hard drive, and other key system areas. As long as you don't change anything and always use the "cancel" button to exit that dialogue, you are safe looking around. I always encourage this as you ought to know what your options are and where they are. However, it is definitely an area where extreme caution is in order.
One item of note is called "add/remove programs". It is very useful when software you install doesn't have its own method for removing it when no longer wanted. In that event, you would go to the "add/remove programs" option. You would then be presented with a list of software installed on your computer. I have found the list to be slow to load on computers with Windows XP Home edition. To navigate through the list, you have to use the up and down arrow keys. Unlike other lists of this nature, you cannot hit the first letter of the name of the software you want to find in order to navigate more quickly. It's a bit of a pain to have to use this method but it can at times be the only method for removing or altering the installation options of software.
The date and time option in the control panel allows you, naturally enough, to set the computer's date and time. This is easily done via the combo boxes which let you set the hour, minute and second as well as the proper date. What you may not have guessed is that there are other tabs besides the date and time tab you start out in. You can tell the computer which time zone you're in via the time zones tab. You can also get the computer to synchronize the time with one of many servers attached to atomic clocks run by governments and large corporations. You need to be connected to the Internet in order to make use of the "Internet time" tab. However, you need not have a permanent connection. You could connect to the Internet and then go into that dialogue and instruct the computer to perform the synchronization manually. Those with permanent Internet connections can have this done regularly automatically.
The sound and audio option in the control panel takes you to a very useful dialogue box called "sound and audio properties". This is packed with options to make your computer hum to your tune. You can tell it how many speakers you have so that it adjusts its sound output accordingly. One thing you should check for is that there isn't any software more specific to your particular sound card. I use a Creative sound card and can therefore use the Creative audio console. This is a very accessible way of controlling their sound cards giving you many more specialized options. Other sound cards are likely to come with such software. If you find that this is inaccessible or that your sound card doesn't come with such software, the sound and audio properties dialogue in the control panel will be of special use for you. People may also want to set up sound schemes which assign sounds to events such as navigating through menus, opening and closing programs, and starting or shutting down Windows among many other things. You'll need to know where sound files are in order to produce your own sound scheme. However, you may find that your system comes with some already made for you to choose from.
If you have a laptop computer, it may come with one of those built-in mice installed right in front of the bottom of the keyboard. These can be a real nuisance for those of us who don't make use of mice. If you go to the "mouse" option in the control panel, you can adjust a whole range of settings related to these devices. This includes disabling your mouse which could prove useful if you're finding that it interferes with your use of the computer. I found this with my laptop and have since enjoyed a far more productive relationship with it. You'll have to go to the "hardware" tab of the dialogue box in order to find the "properties" button. Once in that dialogue, you'll come to the part where you can enable or disable it. Should sighted people need access to a mouse, you can always go in there again and enable it for them. An easier option is to carry a USB mouse around with you and simply plug it into a usb port when required.
The power option in the control panel lets you instruct your computer concerning the use of energy. You can create a power scheme or choose one from a number already pre-designed. Power schemes are a certain configuration of settings which tell your computer such things as how long to wait before shutting off parts of the computer. You might want the computer to shut down the hard drives after fifteen minutes of inactivity for example. There are many different tabs in this dialogue box and all sorts of options to customize. You'll most likely find the default settings fine while starting out. However, it's a good idea to look around and know your options in this area.
The other areas of the control panel will function much like these areas have. Look around and explore all your options. Until you have a good idea what you're doing, use the cancel button when you're finished with a dialogue to get back out of it. This way, you can explore settings without making any changes. Eventually, your competence will reach a point where you will start finding good reasons to make use of what's in the control panel. Give it time and play it safe.
We have now completed our basic tour of Windows. Users of the Windows Vista operating system will doubtless find some things to be different than what I've described here. However, according to what I've read, things should still be similar enough for most of what I've written to be useful. You should now know enough to be able to make some use of the rest of this guide. Keep in mind that this is just enough for you to make basic use of Windows. Use other training material and the built-in help to become truly competent users of your machines.
3-- Getting Online:
As delivered, most computers will come with a basic set of software. This will typically include some form of word processor, software related specifically to installed hardware, programs which help you maintain the computer's performance, and so-on. These programs are useful to the widest range of computer owners. For the most part, these should be fully accessible to your access technology. They include things like system maintenance utilities, basic word processing, database and spreadsheet software. These certainly have their uses. People might use a spreadsheet program like Excel to do their budget on. They might keep track of information related to a collection they have in a database. What you start out with depends on a whole range of factors including which operating system you use, what is bundled with your computer, the kind of computer you have, etc. It is therefore impossible for me to adequately cover how to make effective use of this software in the guide. However, this software will typically have plenty of built-in help. If you use other operating systems, be certain that your initial trainers show you how to access your computer's built-in help and documentation. Patience and the willingness to try things out combined with this built-in help are what will pull you through the initial period of using your computer for your own interests.
To truly begin to acquire the resources to get the most out of your computer, you must venture beyond the confines of your hard drive and get yourself on the Internet. There, you will find the information and software to make your computer a more truly personally valuable machine to you. There are a number of ways to go online. For most home users, these are dial up, DSL and cable connections. Dial up connections use your existing phone line to connect you to the Internet. This is normally the cheapest option available. It is also painfully slow by today's standards. I can only recommend this type of connection if you have no other affordable alternative. It's a lot better than nothing at all but there are other disadvantages besides speed. While you're connected to the Internet, your phone line will be busy. You'll also have to disable call waiting while you're online or it may interfere with your connection. I don't remember my dial up days very fondly at all. Most downloading had to be done overnight so I could use my phone during the day. Web sites took ages to load and checking E-mail was about the only thing which seemed to go at a reasonable pace. Of course, if somebody sends you one or more large attachments, you'll wonder what I might mean by "reasonable pace". Want to listen to a trailer for a movie or game? Click on it, go and get a drink and you might not have to wait too much longer after returning to your keyboard and sitting down.
DSL access also uses your existing phone line. However, it does this in such a way that you can still talk on the phone. The connection speed is much faster than dial up. It's about the same as cable connectivity offers. Occasionally, I experienced times when something went wrong with the filters which separate the signals of normal telephone use from Internet use. This can cause static on the line while you're talking and cause your Internet connection to be unreliable. However, such problems are quite rare. Cable connectivity uses the same cable as you use for receiving television. The speed is quite fast but may vary depending on how many subscribers to cable Internet service are in your area. DSL and cable services cost roughly the same. Find out what is available in your area and consider what's best for you. The people who come to install the hardware for either cable or DSL Internet service will make certain things are working for you.
While the installation person is there, it is important to make certain you have the information pertaining to your connection. For example, to set up an Email account using an email program like Outlook Express, you need to know:
1. The name of the pop3 server. For instance, pop.myprovider.com
2. The smtp server. For instance, smtp.myprovider.com
3. your account information including your user name and password. These will let you set up email accounts and manage your service.
4. Any important telephone numbers for technical support and customer care. If you have trouble while you're getting up and going, these numbers can help you fill in any gaps in the information you have and how to make use of it. Beyond what's above in this section, I can't really help you more with the nuts and bolts of getting online. It depends on the kind of system you're using, the type of connection and specific provider you choose to deal with. If possible, you should use a router to connect your computer to the Internet. This will improve your security and make it safer to go online without running a firewall if you have to. For more information on Internet security, see the next section.
3.1-- Finding Your Way:
Let us assume that you're all wired up and are ready to enter the Internet. The first topic of discussion has to be your web browser. This is the software which retrieves information from the web and displays the sites you choose to visit. Particular browsers may have different features, use different terminology and be designed with different styles of interface. If you don't end up liking the browser you start out with, you definitely have other options to choose from. As you will likely be making extensive use of the Internet, it's important to be comfortable with your browser. The Windows operating system comes with its own browser called Internet Explorer. This is the browser which I personally use. However, there are also the Firefox, Opera and Webbie browsers to point out a few alternatives. I doubt that you could be given an access technology solution for a computer which wouldn't include at least basic instructions on how to use a browser. If you need more help, I refer you to these instructions.
The help offered within the browser may prove useful. However, users of access technology should first look within the help or manual offered with the specific access technology. For instance, I use the Jaws for Windows screen reader. This gives me an abundance of specialized help which tells me how to use Internet Explorer with Jaws. It even covers the basics of surfing the Internet. Other screen readers will come with specific help related to them. I know how daunting ploughing through help can seem though so I'll go over the bare bones here.
The browser uses your Internet connection to take you to various sites on the Internet. To get to a site, you need to either follow a link from the site you're already on or go directly to its address. Don't panic if you can't think of any addresses to visit. There are search engines to help people find places of interest on the Internet. Enter a phrase, keywords or names into the entry field on a search engine and it will find and display links to relevant sites on a page made in seconds just for you. As with browsers, there are a tremendous lot of different search engines out there. Some are designed to be as friendly as possible to people using access technology. Others sadly aren't very friendly at all. Many sites have convenient entry fields for searching the rest of the Internet right from where you are.
One of the most widely known engines and also one of the most accessible is Google. It's an excellent search engine for novices to use because the page is so straight forward. There are advertisements but none which will cause any trouble with screen readers. There are different ways of typing keywords or phrases into search engines. You can separate keywords by commas which will search for pages containing any or all of the words but not necessarily right near each other. Putting a phrase in quotation marks will cause the search engine to look for pages containing the exact words or phrase you typed in. Search engines like Google have various settings which you can customize to personalize your experience with the engine. A simple example of this is that you can tell google how many results you want to be shown at once.
You can't do any harm by using a search engine. However, you should be aware that the Internet is perhaps more unregulated than any physical location on the planet. Anyone can put up a web site on whatever they want and there are a lot of shady, sexual, pornographic and misleading sites out there. You have to be a savvy consumer of the information you find even if it appears legitimate. It doesn't usually take a lot of time or effort to find out about a site you've found something of interest on. Legitimate sites will have links to pages which explain all about them and the information presented. Remember too that good information need not come from a government, library or other organization. We all have knowledge about things which take our interest and the Internet lets people share this wisdom freely. It is perhaps the most powerful catalyst for sharing of information that the world has ever seen and blind people can participate fully in this arena.
Here are some excellent resources to get your online life started. Note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list and that I can only vouch for these links being accurate up to the time that I publish this guide. On the bright side, I have taken great pains to choose places designed for and often by blind people which have proved to be popular and have stood the test of time. Barring disaster, they'll be around for years to come. This should give novices a good first online experience free of many of the annoyances and dangers out there. Have fun looking around but keep in mind that you should get your computer protected as soon as possible. I'll guide you through that in the next section.
3.2-- Initial Online Destinations:
For each web site in this list, I'll provide its name, address and then a brief description of what it offers. Once you've learned how, you can simply copy and paste the link into the place in your browser where web addresses should be typed. At first, you may have to remember and type in addresses. Fortunately, many of the sites set up for and by the blind community have links to each other. This will let you get around easier once you've taken the first step of going to a site assuming it has a collection of links to others.
This site is an incredibly successful project of the American Council for the Blind. It features five Internet radio stations run by and especially for blind people. One station, "Interactive", allows blind people to become broadcasters. The Mainstream station features information shows as well as interactive talk radio shows pertaining to blindness. The Treasure Trove features continuous old-time radio broadcasts. The Cafe is dedicated specifically to playing music by blind musicians. Listeners and broadcasters are in around seventy countries. No better place exists to find out and participate in what's happening in the blindness community.
Blind Cool Tech
This site is the home of an ongoing pod cast to which anyone may contribute. Thinking outside the box doesn't do this site justice. Taken directly from the site's frequently asked questions "faq" section:
Blind Cool Tech is a pod cast that brings some fun, education, and variety into your mp3 player. The show provides interviews, brings you along on sound seeing tours, and discusses life and cool technology, especially technology that blind people can use. Most computers will already have the software necessary to play mp3 files which are audio recordings of various things. A very interesting treat for the ears and dirt simple to access even for beginners.
This relatively new site proclaims itself to be "the best blind community on the net". While that may very well be debatable, the site creators have certainly packed a lot of punch into their place on the Internet. You will find facilities to create your own blog, type "shouts" [short messages for all visitors of the site to see], sections on everything from books to software and tutorials, facilities for voice chatting over the Internet, and much more. One of my favourite features of the site is a news aggregator. This brings news of interest to blind people in from all over the Internet and puts it all onto a single page. It's like our own specialized newspaper which is updated every twenty minutes presuming there's new content on any of numerous other sites it collects information from. Hard to beat that for getting a quick sense of the online blind community. That news collector is an absolutely fabulous gateway to many sites which are treasure troves of useful information.
For The People:
Note: Dashes are between each word in the above link.
This Internet community is one of the most active serving the blind community. There are ones which use better software, but the volunteers who run For The People seem to know how to keep things safe, lively and friendly. Everyone must register with the site before they can chat. Registration is free and means that people are accountable for their conduct. You need to have a microphone plugged into your computer. Membership is completely free of charge. Due to the guidelines and moderators present, this community is also about as safe as things get for children online.
The Hadley School for the Blind
As they say on their homepage: "The Hadley School for the Blind is the largest worldwide distance educator of blind and visually impaired people, their families and blindness service professionals. Founded in 1920 by William Hadley and Dr. E.V.L. Brown, Hadley offers classes free of charge to its blind and visually impaired students and their families and affordable tuition classes to blindness professionals. Today, the school serves more than 10,000 students annually in all 50 states and 100 countries. Hadley relies on contributions from individuals, foundations and corporations to fund its programs."
The courses certainly include ones on the use of accessible computers as well as a very wide range of other subjects.
Other than the games offered by this company, the owner, Phil Vlasak, maintains a list of all known accessible games. Click on the link which says "fantastic windows games and where to find them". From there, you can find and go to places which offer the kind of games you're interested in. You'll also find other specific lists on Phil's page such as games for Apple Mac computers.
This site is another of the more active and well-run Internet chat communities especially designed and suited for blind people. It is supported and run by paying members but a great deal of what goes on there is open to all comers. This includes classes which help beginning computer users understand the digital world they've just entered. The chat rooms are often moderated further increasing community safety.
Tom Lorimer's Whitestick Web site:
This gentleman in the UK has put together a fantastic resource for all blind Internet travellers. You'll find it to be a very interesting place to explore in its own right as well as a gateway to many other helpful destinations known for their accessibility or usefulness to blind people.
4-- Protecting Your Computer
There was no going back now. I had entered the command to completely format my hard drive and thrown out nearly a hundred disks which I could simply no longer trust. I was forced to live with a virus called Golgi2 on my computer for the last half of the school year and had nobody but its author as well as myself to blame. One of the disks full of games I was given contained this beastly little extra in addition to its intended contents. My friend was completely unaware that his computer was infected. Neither of us were using any anti virus protection and would now pay a very stiff price for our impudence. I had read that the Golgi2 virus would wait for certain conditions to be right and then format my hard drive. I had nightmares about this happening in the middle of class but didn't have what I would need to rebuild my system from the ground up. After the year's end when at least there were no more assignments to get done for the Summer, a good friend came over once the disks I needed arrived. He would be able to help install a fresh copy of Dos and read the screen for me until we got the computer talking again. The ticking sound the hard drive made as all of my doomed data was destroyed along with the virus holding me hostage was the scariest sound I had ever heard. Did my friend really know enough to bring me out of this abyss? I had lost so much writing, numerous games which I have never been able to find since, and some registration codes to software I had purchased and would now have to re-acquire. Not a very fun start to my Summer vacation. That was back in 1991. Here's the truly scary part of all this. Things were a whole lot safer in those days.
When computers are truly personal, they become more than just the sum of their parts. They're almost like another kind of home. They're set for your preferences. The information and software on their hard drives is of particular interest to you. While the computer itself is likely physically safe, the information on it is what actually makes the machine as valuable to you as it is. Any personal data should be both guarded and backed up in case of catastrophic failure such as what I experienced all those years ago. These days, you can be one of the most careful people on the Internet and still get clobbered through no fault of your own.
People who write viruses and other malicious software are doing it out of a personal desire to cause chaos. It's not like a nine-to-five job. At best, it's a sadistic thrill. At worst, it's a criminal enterprise or an individual act of cybernetic terrorism. Just like an athlete works at being the best in a given sport, these people put immense effort and time into their chosen pursuit of making their own hellish mark. Unscrupulous people including criminal organizations and businesses desperate for advertising have dramatically increased the dangers waiting online for the unprepared. While no amount of security can completely shield you from them, you can take easy steps that will make you a very hard target to attack.
Like burglars in the real world, online intruders will look for the most value for the least risk and effort in most cases. The more ego-driven hackers will more likely go after corporations or try to thwart high-profile online security companies. Undefended personal computers are easy prey and will be the first to suffer attacks by the robotic army of viruses and spyware when these creations are released. A recent article I read stated that half the personal computers hooked up to broadband Internet connections were undefended. That's a lot of easy money for spyware makers to rake in by getting their advertisement-spewing software onto unsuspecting people's hard drives. Similarly, viruses can inflict more damage and embed themselves more easily on undefended systems. Many malicious programs spread by Email which seems to be from a trusted source but was never knowingly sent by the apparently guilty party.
Viruses, spam, spyware, information and identity theft are the dark side of the Internet. Nobody should be online without being made aware of the very real dangers out there. As long as you're aware of the dangers, you can protect yourself quite well against them. Don't let anybody convince you that it's not worth the risk going online. That's like saying that you should never talk to strangers. Follow that advice far past childhood and you'll live quite a lonely and pitiful existence. Life entails some risk. Deal with it properly by taking reasonable precautions and you'll do fine.
One of the best things you can do to protect your personal computer is quite simply to take personal charge of it. A lot of times, we let sighted people install things which are beneficial to them but may have disastrous unintended consequences for us. In one instance, a woman I was trying to help allowed her brothers to pretty much have full control over her computer installing whatever they wanted and changing any settings to suit them. This made it all but impossible for the woman who this computer was purchased for to do anything meaningful with it. She was in a situation where she didn't have the power to stop them. Until that situation changed, there was absolutely no point in my trying to help her at all.
The absolute worst case I've ever experienced where a sighted person inadvertently caused major grief for a blind computer owner happened a couple of years ago. I was privileged to have the opportunity to help a very smart young lad learn about what his computer could do for him. We were looking forward to Summer when there would be lots of time to show him the basics of the Internet and the rewards out there. Sadly, while a sighted friend visited, they decided to look for free games to try. There are plenty of excellent and safe places to acquire these. However, they didn't make use of them. They also, like many of us, didn't look at the license displayed during the installation of the game they selected. This game was supported by what is known as spyware. In its attempt to keep a steady stream of advertisements in front of this blind child who couldn't see them anyhow, the spyware rendered his computer unstable, open to further attack by viruses and almost completely useless online.
To get rid of the offending software, you had to type in a code which was displayed in such a way that only sighted people could read it. This was to prevent the spyware from being removed automatically. The poor kid had to live with this condition until the end of the Summer when somebody was able to help enter the code at a time when I could spend whatever additional time it took to get things secure and back to normal. That's what can happen if you don't take proper precautions. In another case, a sighted person decided to change from a classic menu style and appearance which helps simplify things for blind users to a more "normal" desktop and appearance. He sadly didn't return things to how they were before leaving. This made life very hard for the blind user until he could get another sighted person in who could see and explain what was going on and help restore order and tranquility. Think of it like having somebody come in and rearrange everything in your home to suit them. That's quite disturbing to anybody blind or sighted. It can seem like such a small thing to grant permission to sighted people to do things like the above examples. Unless and until you have a good idea how to undo the potential damage and/or hardship this can result in, my advice is to insist that nothing be changed. It's your computer and it's important that you, the blind owner, feel comfortable taking ownership and setting boundaries. Sighted people don't always know what's best despite often thinking they do.
There are three essential components to a good defence. These are a firewall or best possible equivalent, anti-virus software, and anti-spyware defence. Firewalls attempt to prevent attackers from accessing your system. Think of them like locks on windows and doors in your home. They're not going to stop someone who is willing to smash their way in. However, they will make intruders consider whether it's worth the effort it takes. Many firewalls will also hide your computer's online presence making it less likely that it will be found and singled out for attack in the first place. Unfortunately, many of the firewalls available are not designed with accessibility in mind. This can be particularly troublesome for novices. Lately, one of the best free personal firewalls became impossible to register. Therefore, in view of the current situation regarding firewalls, people are recommending that blind people use hardware firewalls or routers with built-in security. A router is a device which connects to your internet connection as well as to your computer. Any Internet trafic passes through the router which makes certain that the trafic is legitimately from and to your computer. Think of it like a middleman. If you're behind a router, people can't directly access your computer without permission. There may be times when you find that a router will interfere with some software you want to run. To handle that, you should learn how to access your router's settings to give you better control over its operations. How to access these settings will differ depending on the router being used so I can't offer any further advice here. For the average novice and intermediate computer user, I don't think you'll need to do this under normal circumstances.
Users of Windows XP or Vista should try using the firewall provided especially if they are directly connected to the Internet without going through a router. When programs try to access the Internet, a dialogue will appear alerting you to this. You'll be able to decide whether to block or allow the program under scrutiny to access the Internet. You should also check a box which says to remember your choice so that the firewall won't ask you every time the program accesses the Internet. As time passes, you won't be interrupted as often by the firewall. The firewall built into Windows XP only looks at incoming information and is therefore less secure than the more inaccessible free firewalls out there. For users of Windows Vista, the prospects look much better as the built-in firewall will examine both incoming and outgoing traffic. It is also reported to be fully accessible.
In a contest between spear and shield, there are going to be times when the shield fails. When something gets past your firewall or router, it's up to your anti virus and antispyware defences to kick in. They're like having armed guards on patrol in your home. Fortunately, there are numerous free accessible options out there for Windows users. In an effort to attract small businesses and larger corporations, many providers of excellent defence software make free versions available for personal use. I don't like to recommend anything I haven't used successfully myself. I'll therefore point you towards the most blind-friendly free anti virus and antispyware programs I've personally come across. Just keep in mind that there are other choices out there if what works well for me doesn't suit you for some reason.
If you're looking for alternatives to my anti virus and antispyware choices, your best bet is to use a search engine like Google. Your first goal will be to locate free anti virus and antispyware programs. You should next look for reviews of these programs to get an idea of what people did and didn't like about each of the alternatives you're considering. It's becoming more possible to find reviews of such products done by fellow blind users. Always look for this and take advantage of that experience where such information is available. I have no experience with other operating systems such as Linux. However, I've heard that software for it is generally quite accessible.
For many years now, I have used AVG's anti virus software. Anybody who decides to follow my lead and use AVG products should be aware of the current situation. Recently, AVG has updated to version 8 of its software products. Unfortunately, they drastically changed their main interface from a splendidly accessible one in version 7.5 to a doubtless more visually pleasant but far less intuitive one in version 8. Despite this, now that the major issue with AVG and Jaws for Windows has been resolved, I would still recommend that people give AVG8 a good look. It's no longer the utter king of the castle in terms of accessibility that it was previously but it's still quite good and usable. Learning how to change test settings and other options will reward you with more control over options like which files are tested, whether to add information to the bottom of your emails stating that they have been scanned for viruses, change when tests and updates happen, and much more. During tests, you'll notice your computer becoming sluggish as much of its resources are called upon to scan files thoroughly but quickly. This can at times be inconvenient should you need to work during such a time. While a test is proceeding, there will be an icon in your system tray. Activating this will open a screen showing the status of the test in progress plus giving you options to pause, continue, or completely stop the test. This way, you can pause a test while you're working on something and then let it proceed while you're away from the computer. It is very important to have complete control over automatic processes like this. Unless it's absolutely necessary to disable your security software for a particular set of circumstances, I recommend you always use your computer with its anti virus software active and running in the background. AVGfree gives you quite a lot of control over its resident shield. Also, you wouldn't want to grab some email and not have it scanned as it came in. AVG also offers a free antispyware package. It is certainly a good thing to have ready and up to date. However, it isn't as automatic as AVGfree and it'll be up to you to take complete responsibility for upkeep and operation. That's why I hesitate to recommend it for novice users.
While it's alright to have copies of more than one anti virus package on hand, you should never run more than one at a time. They're both going to eat up resources and may come into conflict with each other. Pick whichever software you trust best and have that be your active anti virus defence. If it makes you feel safer, have a second package handy for when something can't be handled by your main one. I personally don't have another package installed. AVGfree has earned a high level of trust by keeping both me and other people who I've recommended it to safe from threats which have caused havoc on systems defended by even other commercially sold defence software. However, I know of a few online anti virus sites which offer free scan and cleanup. Once you're comfortable with using the Internet, these tools should be fully accessible to you. You can find AVGFree in both Windows and Linux versions at:
I always recommend that people look at the available help and explore the options in security programs. You can then do a lot more to tailor the operation of those programs to suit you rather than having things the other way around at times. However, assuming normal circumstances, you can simply install AVGFree and leave it running confident that you're being well protected from viruses.. Updates will automatically be retrieved for you from the Internet. All of your Email will be checked as you send and receive it. Your computer will be scanned once a day for viruses. Any that are found are moved to the virus vault. One alternative which has had favourable comments in terms of accessibility as well as security is Avast. Avast is a competitive product to AVG and also offers a free version of its software for personal home use. You can get it from:
Defending yourself against spyware is similar to protecting yourself against viruses. Find a package that you feel the most comfortable with in terms of trustworthiness first and accessibility a very close second. From personal experience, I recommend Spybot Search and Destroy as your primary defence. Like my recommendation for anti virus defence above, it is also free for personal use. Just as AVG has gone to considerable trouble to make its software accessible to blind users, so have the authors of Spybot. When you install the software, there is a special setting for blind users which makes the program far easier to use effectively. You choose this when it asks what type of installation you want to have. Use the combo box to choose full installation for blind users.
Like other programs, you'll find a series of Pull down menus which let you access different areas of Spybot. One of your first stops should be in the navigation Pull down menu where you'll come to the settings submenu. Go into that menu and down to the settings option. Hitting enter on that will bring up a tree view. Each branch of the tree contains a different area of settings which govern how Spybot behaves. The only absolutely crucial thing here is that you set the software to automatically find and download updates whenever it is run. I find the process of updating the software manually to be bothersome and likely beyond the skill of novice users. Therefore, I'm very thankful that an automatic way to do this is provided. You can also adjust such things as the level of priority given to scanning for spyware over other programs running on your computer, when it initiates a scan, and many other things. Have a good look around that whole tree and set Spybot up just how you want it. Your settings should be saved automatically for you. There is no "save settings" button.
As an example of how a tree view works, let's take the "start program" branch. You'll find it while going up and down on the trunk of the tree. This contains the major categories of settings such as general settings, automation, look and feel, etc. Going out onto a branch such as "program start" will let you look at the twigs on that branch which are such things as whether it should check for updates, run a scan, fix problems, etc automatically once it is run. You can find Spybot Search and Destroy at:
Another very popular anti-spyware program is Lavasoft's Adaware. You can obtain a free version of this for home use as well. Go to:
to obtain a copy.
5-- Maintaining Your Computer and Data
Over time, unless we're obsessive about organization, things will get moved to different places as they're used in daily life. While computers like things organized, they will also misplace information on their hard drives in the interest of speed and efficiency. Just as we might leave a piece of mail haphazardly on the counter as we lunge for a ringing phone, computers will do this with data as we put them through their paces. While files are originally created in an organized fashion, things change as space is recycled. Old software is removed and new software is installed in space originally earmarked for what was taken away. New files may be created or copied to the hard drive which are of different sizes than their predecessors. Like the desk of an overworked executive, the disorderly accumulation eventually impedes performance. This process is known as fragmentation and there's just no avoiding it over time.
Any operating system in use today should have a tool for dealing with this problem. In Windows XP, it can be found in the accessories menu under the system tools submenu. It is called disk defragmenter. It will work best if as few other programs running on the computer are accessing the drive to be defragmented as possible. I typically disable my screen reader, Jaws For Windows, and instead use the less powerful basic screen-reader built right into Windows called Narrator. It seems not to need to access the hard drive nearly as much and still works well enough to make use of basic Windows dialogs like those found in the disk defragmenter. Defragmentation can take quite a long time as the process has to reorganize all of the files on your hard drive. These days, hard drives are quite large so you should be prepared not to be able to use your computer while the process is going on. If you learn how to schedule tasks, you can tell your computer to defragment the hard drive at a specific time of day automatically. I know it's a pain to have to do this but procrastinating on this investment in time will ultimately cost you more time. Your computer must search longer to find things and you'll also lose the use of some space on your drive as files become more disorderly.
There are also tools for cleaning up your hard drive, restoring your system to an early state, and many other useful items. I have no doubt that other operating systems have their own equivalents. The Disk Cleanup tool will help keep Windows users free of needless extra files. You should run this tool which you'll find in the system tools submenu in accessories about once a week or so. It deletes temporary files, empties the recycle bin, and does a few more things to un clutter your drive. The System Restore tool can be a real life-saver. Be certain that this tool is enabled on your computer. If you install something which adversely effects things or badly botch things in some other devastating way, being able to effectively turn back time is a very useful thing. You should set up the system restore tool to use around ten percent of your hard drive to maintain safe points that you can return your computer to. For the safety it offers, this loss of space is a very small price to pay.
Another lesser known but very useful tool used to be called scandisk. Now, you have to dig for it more. If you open Windows Explorer or My Computer and go to the hard drive, for instance local drive c:, you can then hit the alt key and go up with the up-cursor key. This should land you on Properties. Hit the "enter" key and you'll be in a dialog with a number of tabs, some useful information such as the amounts of used and free space on your drive, and a number of options. The main thing to focus on here is the "tools" tab. Once it is selected, you can navigate to the disk cleanup, defragmenter, and an error checking tool. This last one is what runs if you ever have to reset due to a lockup or can't shut down properly because of a system crash. I typically use this error checking tool about once every two months to check for errors on the hard drive. It can automatically fix these and this can recover wasted space plus help safeguard your data against being corrupted. I fervently hope that whatever the equivalent tool is in other accessible operating systems isn't so hidden away. Maintaining the health of your hard drive is an absolute must.
Don't fill your main hard drive right up. To defragment efficiently, Windows XP needs something like ten to fifteen percent of your hard drive to be free. Also, some of your hard drive space is used for temporary files and for virtual memory. As Windows runs, there are times when more memory is briefly needed than you have physically in your computer. The hard drive is then used as a way to increase the amount of random access memory or RAM available. Having your hard drive absolutely full could prevent your whole system from running. Therefore, if you ever look into managing the size of virtual memory yourself, be very careful to leave enough for things to work. In general, you should leave it to Windows to take care of that aspect of things for you.
If you delete things in Windows, they are put into the recycle bin. This should be emptied every once in a while to free up disk space and permanently delete what's in there. However, if you ever delete something you later wish you hadn't, look in the recycle bin and restore items you want back. It's quite hard to do something truly harmful by pure accident. This is certainly the case with Windows. It loves asking users if they're truly certain they want to do things. It can be annoying at times as one grows more competent but it can, on occasion, provide that vital second's pause for thought. I have no experience with other current operating systems in terms of how much hand-holding they subject their users to.
No matter how well you maintain your hard drive, you're not invincible. You may be hit with a virus that your defence software can't handle. You may experience a hardware failure which renders your computer useless until the problem is fixed. Hard drives themselves are known to sometimes fail with next to no warning at all. While catastrophic events like the above are rarely experienced, it only takes one such disaster to completely wreck your whole day. Anybody who uses computers extensively will eventually experience the mind-boggling humiliating anguish of wishing he or she had backed up important files more frequently at some point. Veterans of modern computing are quick to complain about little things which annoy them. However, it is relatively rare that a true irreversible irredeemable disaster strikes. It isn't so surprising then that we all, myself included, fall into that trap of thinking nothing is going to happen to their system. Teenagers no longer have a monopoly on the whole immortality complex. I can't count the number of elderly people who I've asked about their computer's security only to be told that they just let their kids take care of it or haven't bothered to do even that much. It's only after they've lost that registration code to a piece of beloved software or found that the memoirs they've been working on have become corrupted and can't be accessed or some other painful disaster has happened that they become aware that just as in real life, they're digitally vulnerable.
Backing up your files is simply a matter of making copies of them on other media than your hard drive. Windows XP doesn't come with very useful software for this. Blind people have made use of software such as Nero or Roxio CD Creator. Other operating systems may have better built-in support for backing up files easily. The only such software designed from the ground up to be accessible and easy for blind people to use which I've heard of is Accessible CD/DVD Creator from Premier Assistive Technology. You can find it at:
The software must be purchased but there is a demo version which lets you burn a certain number of CDs before becoming useless. Try this to make certain what works for me will work for you. I especially like how it tells you when you've tried to put too much on a CD or DVD. You must then choose items to remove until you are no longer warned that you're over the capacity of your CD or DVD. All of the menus and information are spoken out loud including the progress percentage as you're actually burning a CD or DVD. Particularly for beginners, having such software makes a great deal of sense and is in my humble opinion well worth the cost.
What should you back up? Generally, you shouldn't have to back up any software that you have a CD or DVD for. Your purchased copies of the operating system, office suite of software, screen-reader, etc, is effectively already backed up for you. Concentrate on information you'd truly hate to lose. Any important documents you've written, registration codes to purchased software, important Emails especially those containing passwords and such, and any purchased files such as music or books. This is the kind of thing which causes so much anguish when it's lost. As online shopping becomes more prevalent particularly when it comes to entertainment, this practice becomes even more important. Once you've made backup copies, make certain they're in a safe and secure place. While it'll certainly be annoying to rebuild your digital kingdom from scratch if the need actually arises, you will at least have all the building blocks handy.
Rounding off our discussion of basic computer care, let's consider the physical machine itself. While they're on, computers will tend to attract dust. If possible, you should think about how dusty an area is when deciding where to put your computer. Make certain that the air intake vents as well as the area where warm air is expelled from the computer are clear of any obstacles. All of the cables protruding from your computer are another area where some consideration and knowledge can go a long way. I once found myself summoned to the aid of a very panicked student who thought her computer was infected with a dreadful virus which prevented her mouse from working at all. She was thinking of calling in a professional to dig her out of the mess she thought herself in and lamenting how much that might cost. I asked whether she had checked the mouse cable to make certain that it was correctly plugged in. "Oh!" she said. That, of course, was the real cause of her frustrations.
Cables may come partially out of their ports or sockets at times and it's a good idea to have a sense of what cable leads to what device. I've heard from quite a few blind people who have called in costly technical help only to find that their troubles were the result of cables which had silently come free of their ports just enough to break the flow of information between a device and their computers. These days, it's hard to go wrong with cables. Things which are plugged into usb ports don't care which port they're plugged into. Use less convenient ports for devices which will not have to be removed in normal circumstances. Keep the ports you may have on the front of your computer for use by items you only need to connect occasionally or which you may need to remove for whatever reason. My front pair of usb ports are what I use to connect my external hard drive and smaller flash drive. I would also use them for a joystick or gamepad should I wish to use those kinds of things.
Make certain that cables aren't in any danger of being pulled past their maximum length. There shouldn't be any tension in connected cables. Also, it is a good idea to keep tangle to a minimum.
There's nothing more frustrating than to have a perfectly working computer be rendered absolutely useless due to a wrecked keyboard, severed speaker cable or some other very inexpensive peripheral. If it is at all possible for you, keep a spare keyboard and a set of headphones on hand. Should disaster strike and your speakers short out or your keyboard be drenched in some delicious but destructive thirst-quenching liquid, it's good to have backup options available. Both spare keyboards and speakers can be had very inexpensively as can headphones. It's a perfectly reasonable investment to make given all the multitude of things your computer can do for you.
6-- Taking It All In: Online Media:
The Internet is absolutely full of interesting and useful things to watch and listen to. Most of this audio and video content is free for anybody to take advantage of. You can download files containing things like movie trailers, music, various radio shows, etc. If you're worried about hard drive space, much of this content is streamed to you. Basically, this means that it arrives just as it's needed and isn't actually stored permanently on your hard drive. When you're finished listening to something which is being streamed such as your favourite Internet radio station, any remaining information pertaining to what you were hearing is wiped out as you close the player used to listen. You can therefore do things like listen to music or news broadcasts while you're working without fear that your hard drive will suddenly be full to capacity. This section will take you through the various forms of online media and what you need to know in order to make use of them.
6.1-- Listening To Music, Internet Radio and Video
To listen to any music files or broadcast streams including radio stations, you'll need the proper software. Many players can handle more than one format. However, each of the popular formats in widespread use has its own dedicated player. I've always found that it's best to use the player designed especially for a given format. Some players are more accessible or easier to use than others. They all will work with many different formats and will try and convince you to use them in place of other players. All of them have menus with various options including one which lets you change the settings of the player such as which kinds of files it will play. Don't panic if you don't get it right while installing a player. Nothing is carved in stone.
Let's start out with something easy. Perhaps one of the most widely recognized formats ever created is known as mp3. This format has stood the test of time very well and is most notably used for encoding songs. Normally, recording a song in full cd quality would require something like forty megabytes for a song of average length. That same song might only require five megs if you convert it or record it directly into mp3 format. The best player for mp3 files which I have ever come across is Winamp. You can get it by going to:
Select the link which says "player". The basic player is all you need to get started. The Winamp Pro player must be paid for and offers enhancements which you may want to learn more about. Once you've downloaded the free player known as Winamp Basic, it's time to install it. Be certain to go through all of the various options to make certain you're aware of what's being installed. Also, look at the help in whatever access technology you've chosen specific to Winamp and its installation. Jaws For Windows offers extensive instructions on optimizing Winamp for use with Jaws. Much of this makes good sense regardless of which technology you use to access your computer. Install only the classic skin for Winamp. This skin alters the appearance of Winamp is far less problematic for screen-reading software to handle than the modern more graphically intensive skins. You can also uncheck the visualization checkbox. That's even more eye candy which will do blind people absolutely no good at all. I personally decided to uncheck the system tray icon agent, the winamp dashboard, and a couple of other options in the library section. If you download the full or bundled versions, there are other things which come with Winamp. These include sample mp3 files, an offer for fifty free mp3s from an online music service and a security monitor. There may be other things included by the time you read this guide. Since I haven't tried out these extras, I leave it to your judgement to choose which if any of these you install.
Winamp is one of the most friendly players for blind people due to its ability to be controlled completely with the keyboard. It'll probably take you a while to become comfortable with all the keys. However, you don't have to use them right away. If you hit the alt key, you get to the menu of Winamp. Unlike other applications, Winamp has its Pull down menu like a tree with submenu's branching out from the main trunk. After hitting the alt key, go down once to get to the "winamp" menu. Hitting the right arrow or the enter key gets you into the main trunk of the menu. Moving down gets you to the next option or submenu branching from the trunk. The "play" menu lets you select what you want to play. The "playback" menu is farther down the main trunk and you can access all of the options such as play, pause, move to the previous or next track, etc. To help you get started quickly, here's a brief summary. The l key gets you into a dialogue where you can choose a file to play. A capital l gets you to a dialog where you can select a folder. All files within that folder will then be played. The z, x, c, v, and b keys respectively let you go to the previous file, play the current file, pause a file, stop a file, and advance to the next file. The s key turns on or off shuffle mode which plays files in folders or play lists in random order. The r key toggles repeat mode on and off. Another handy key to know is holding down the control key and hitting p. This gets you to preferences where you can customize a great deal about how Winamp behaves.
Once you have Winamp installed, you're all set to grab some mp3 files or tune in to thousands of stations. There are some free mp3s right on the Winamp site. Go to the "audio" link. Next, go to the heading saying "free mp3 downloads". Below that, you'll find numerous songs which you can practice downloading and playing. The musical taste might leave a little to be desired but you can't beet the price.
A good first stop to find some Internet radio stations is at:
They run a number of very good radio stations which you can listen to for free. There are occasional commercials but they're far less lengthy or intrusive than what you'd hear on FM stations. There aren't any headings to make navigation easier. However, you can quickly go down the page until you start finding information about stations. Find a link which says "buttons/blue_96K" if you have cable or DSL Internet. If you have a dial up connection, you should look for the yellow 24k links. Those will give you stations which transmit at slower speeds and are optimized for dial up connections. The 32K links will work with Windowsmedia player and should be fine for dial up listeners as well. There! Hopefully, that was enough to bring some nice tunes your way. You might also want to venture onto:
They have thousands of stations of pretty much any kind including spoken audio stations for news. One of the best which I have ever come across is KCRW Worldnews. They feature material from the BBC as well as from NPR making for a very interesting listening experience for people into world events. You can search for specific stations or search by genre. After you've narrowed down your genre and any other criteria, look for the "tunein" link. That should get you going nicely on that site.
For quick and easy access to commercial radio stations broadcasting on the Internet, blind listeners may want to look at Bill Sparks's Radio Lookup. This is a searchable list of English radio stations from fifteen countries. To check it out, go to:
For people who enjoy spoken audio books, I have a nifty recommendation for you. Check out:
This station continuously broadcasts audio books for the enjoyment of all. There is a schedule which will help avid readers tune in at the right times to enjoy entire books they're particularly interested in.
Finally, you'll also want to look at the major national broadcasters such as the BBC, CBC and NPR. To access the BBC content, one very simple solution is packaged with the free Thunder screen reader you can get from:
If you install that, you will also get a number of other programs which you can find in the "accessible" Pull down menu which branches off from your "programs" menu. The programs you want to look at are called "bbc listen again" and "bbc live radio". Tuning in just doesn't get any easier than this. When you're more comfortable on the Internet, you can visit the sites and become more informed about what's on tap. Go to:
British broadcasting service radio
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio:
The American National Public Radio
Another very useful place to visit is Voiceprint. This is a national reading service run in Canada staffed by volunteer readers. It is broadcast on television and is also available over the Internet. The site also has a great deal of local information about happenings in places all over Canada. The audio stream you can tune into features the same content as you hear broadcasted over the television. Look at the schedule on the site to determine when items of potential interest to you are going to be presented. Don't forget about the archives of past shows maintained on the Voiceprint site. There are doubtless similar services run in other countries. To take advantage of this fantastic resource, go to:
Those interested in happenings beyond our planet should check out:
Look for a link called "Nasa TV". You can tune in to a video broadcast which includes sounds and commentary of events in space. If NASA has a mission underway or something is happening on the International Space Station, chances are you can follow along as things unfold.
Your experience with Winamp as well as the sites above should prepare you for dealing with the other various media players and sites which make use of them. It's not rocket science. Just be certain that you're aware of any extras which sometimes come with these players. They aren't dangerous but may not be designed with accessibility in mind. The BBC makes extensive use of Reelplayer but has a very different and accessible means of accessing its various streams and material. The CBC in Canada uses Windowsmedia Player. Any of the major radio stations or national broadcast services go to great lengths to make accessing their content as easy as possible. In most cases, users of other operating systems should be able to find means of playing the content. I, however, am not well-equipped to offer any more direct advice as I can for Windows users.
I've derived hundreds of hours and learned a great deal listening to Internet radio. The choice available is absolutely staggering. Many blind people are trying their hand and Internet broadcasting themselves. Some have even made money doing this. If you have creative talent, the Internet is a great place to share it. If you don't have all the skills, time, hardware or money, you may find other enthusiasts could use your help with their projects or they with yours. Great things have resulted from such collaborations online. A particularly good place to start for people looking to get into Internet broadcasting is ACB Radio. Go to:
The people involved in that effort are very supportive. I wish any of my readers who choose to share their interests through this medium the very best of luck.
Taking advantage of video streamed over the Internet is just like audio. You may have to download and install the correct player to receive the video. Depending on the format, you may be able to download a video file which can give you control over which player to use. For instance, mpg and mp4 files can be played in Winamp. This lets you jump around, pause and control the volume. Sometimes, sites which offer video content use their own proprietary player which is often integrated into your web browser. A good example of this is the Flash plugin. Depending on your access technology, this can limit your ability to control playback. Other than in very obscure cases, you should always be able to play video content. Starting play is typically simply a matter of clicking on the appropriate link or button on a site. You may find controls right on the site that let you influence play. Efforts are proceeding to make video content generally more friendly to access technology.
6.2-- Pod casts
Pod casts are named because of an mp3 player made by apple called the Ipod. They are audio or video presentations made using formats compatible with such portable players. Mostly, the audio ones are mp3 files and video Pod casts are mp4 or mpg files. You can play these like any other audio file on your computer once you download them. There are two ways of doing that. You can go directly to the site on which they reside and download them just like ordinary files. However, if you understandably don't want to have to keep visiting a bunch of sites to check if a new file has been posted, there's an easier way. Just find an accessible pod catcher program. It can be used to more easily obtain your favourite Pod casts. Some browsers also have methods of keeping updated with this kind of content.
In a nutshell, Pod casts combine audio and video content with a technology called RSS. This stands for really simple syndication and lives up to its name. To subscribe to a pod cast, you need its URL or uniform resource locator. Some pod cast programs have directories which let you search for and subscribe to Pod casts within them rather than going to various web sites and looking through them for the appropriate information.
For the purposes of this guide, we'll use Accessible Pod catcher which is part of the WebbIE package of software for Windows. It is free software. To obtain it, go to:
and download the complete WebbIE package. You don't have to install everything if you don't want to. In fact, you could just install the accessible pod catcher if that's all you'll need.
The first thing we'll need is a sample pod cast. Fortunately, there are thousands of them around. Lets get you subscribed to the Blind Cool Tech pod cast as it will very likely be of some interest to you. The first step is to get to where the actual URL to the pod cast is. Go to:
with your browser. There are an awful lot of links on this page but you want one very close to the top. You could do a search for the "subscribe" link or the word "subscribe". Choose whatever method is easiest with your browser. Next you want to activate that link usually by clicking on it or hitting the carriage return key. Once you've done that, you have to find out the address you've reached. If you're using Internet Explorer, you can tab until you get to the address field. You can then select and copy the address into the clipboard. Next, run the accessible pod catcher program. Hit the alt key to get to the bar of Pull down menus and go right once. That brings you to the Pod casts menu. Go down to reach the "add pod cast" option and press Enter. You'll then be asked for the pod cast's name. It doesn't matter if you get it exactly right as long as you know what it is. Press Enter after typing in the name. You'll then be asked for the web site or URL. You can then paste the address into that edit field and press Enter. You have now added a pod cast. In case you have difficulty finding that link, it is:
Many pod cast subscription links end in a .xml. There doesn't seem to be any hard and fast rule about that.
The next thing to do is tab over to the "get pod cast" button and hit Enter. That will cause Accessible Pod catcher to download the information about each file currently available. Each file is a presentation posted on a given day. You can tab over to the second of two list views. The first contains the Pod casts available. This is where you select Blind Cool Tech from the available Pod casts. The second list contains the shows. You might want to hear a live recording of a tour of somebody's place, thunder storms, fireworks, a software or hardware review, or whatever else turns your crank. The diversity of what blind people feel is worth recording for everyone interested to hear is mind-boggling. After you picked your show, tab over to the play button and hit enter on that. You can also pause and stop. For greater control, you should hit the alt key and go down to the "save" option where you can save a pod cast to a folder on your hard drive. I recommend creating a folder specifically for Pod casts. The file may take a few minutes to be fully downloaded. Once the file has been saved, you can use Winamp or whatever player you prefer to hear it. Video files may have to be renamed as they often have an "m4v" extension which doesn't signify anything. I suspect that the file type is an mp4 most of the time and will usually change the extension to mp4 and use Winamp to play the file. Winamp is, however, a very versatile player and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that I was wrong about the exact file type.
Other than the above, Pod casts are pretty straight-forward. Check out the pod cast directory in the program menu where Accessible Pod catcher resides. It's a totally separate program. If you want or need to use the web to find new Pod casts independent of a facility built into your pod catcher program, you may like:
I hope you enjoy this very accessible and fascinating form of Internet media.
7-- Online Communities and Communication
As blind people, we can be especially prone to isolation. In a world designed for cars, getting around can be more of a problem than it is for our sighted contemporaries. Many of us have a surfeit of time on our hands while our sighted contemporaries have all the freedom of action one could want but precious little time to make use of this.
Fortunately, geographical barriers are a thing of the past in the online world. The only factors are time, commitment and level of interest. Chances are that there will be a discussion list, forum, chat, blog or something relating directly to things of interest to you. You may also decide to create your own online presence. There are numerous places where you can start up an Email list, create a blog, host a chat, and more. This normally won't even cost you any money. You are, in effect, paying for your platform of choice with the time and effort it takes to provide content of interest to others. This is especially the case when you use services which are supported by advertising. For example, many blog sites and hosts of email lists receive revenue for allowing companies to have links posted on their sites or at the bottom of email messages sent to list subscribers.
Before we begin our examination of these truly interactive parts of Digital World, past experience and common sense obligate me to offer some general safety advice. The most crucial thing to keep in mind at all times is that whatever you write online is instantly and irrevocably in the public eye. Even if you are able to delete an entry from a blog five minutes after writing it, people may already have read what you regret having written. I made many editorial mistakes which will be available for anybody to laugh at for all time during my editorship of Audyssey Magazine. You'll learn about some of these in the following sections as I delve more deeply into the various types of communication methods and communities you can make use of. Think very carefully about how much you are comfortable with being in the public sphere before you put yourself there. Over the years, I've made several choices which have resulted in my having achieved a certain low level of fame. I tend to be an open and honest person so this doesn't trouble me a great deal. I enjoy getting to know and helping people so I've made it quite easy for them to contact me. Once you've made the decision to put yourself in that position, it's very hard to undo. The word about you will be out there. More likely than not, any writing or other work you've put online will survive there long after you've moved on. Be especially careful about revealing personal information. My experience over the past decade during which I've been active online has been extremely positive. I've certainly encountered my share of spam, viruses and such. However, I've only had one incident where somebody tried to impersonate me in order to cause some chaos. More serious forms of identity theft certainly take place online. It can absolutely happen to you. You have been warned.
7.1-- The Many Implications of Email
For me, university was where I finally hit my social stride. When I went home for the four-month Summer break between terms during my second and third years, I became acutely aware of just how much social life seemed to lag. I began to feel like I needed a new project of some sort which was personally satisfying unlike my quest for relatively meaningless marks. Computer games have fascinated me all my life. So too has writing. Around that time, I had recently discovered a very well-done email magazine about interactive fiction otherwise known as text adventures. These sorts of games appealed to both my love of words and of play. One of the things I was strongly taken with about the magazine was how its editor always strived to go beyond merely reviewing and announcing new works of interactive fiction. Eileen Mullin wanted people to analyze and think about the games they created and enjoyed in a broader context. She succeeded admirably in this. I was deeply inspired to see if I could reach out to the blind community and get them thinking similarly about accessible computer games.
Creating the very first issue of Audyssey magazine kept me pleasantly busy for around a month and a half. I wasn't really certain what to expect when I sent it out onto the Internet. I first put it up on Compuserve in the forum they had for disabilities. I had my first responses within a matter of days and these were very encouraging. I decided to send it to an Email list I belonged to called Skyclub. This list was run by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and had become a very popular list among blind Canadians even in those early days. I sent my rather large first issue onto this list in eager anticipation of further praise and perhaps some material for the next issue. I had never experienced a flame war before and that was precisely what I had unwittingly started. A number of people had absolutely no interest in accessible games and resented such a very large message on that subject. They pointed out that some people had to pay by the kilobyte for their connections and my magazine was huge as compared to normal messages. Several people considered leaving the list if such postings were to be tolerated in the future. I quickly offered my sincere apologies to any who I had inconvenienced. However, the sparks were already flying as a large number of my first fans came to my defence. It took three or four days before it all calmed down again.
Fortunately, the magazine was circulated to the point that by its third issue, a reader had stepped forward to take charge of Internet distribution. That took a lot of weight off my shoulders as I had absolutely no idea how to go about this efficiently and responsibly at the time. Once Audyssey Magazine had its own Email list, everything changed. Readers could now sign up to receive issues as they were ready. I began to receive far more feedback than I could have imagined when I worked on the first issue. As time went by, things just got bigger and bigger. I eventually had a staff of volunteers to help keep the magazine going and maintain its quality.
A community discussion list was started almost exactly two years after the first issue was published. People could then communicate with fellow dedicated readers in between issues. Suddenly, I was more of a community leader than I was an editor. My eight years in this capacity taught me a great deal about responsibility, leadership, friendship and about what a powerful force for good the Internet could be. At one point, we were being read in at least fourteen countries around the world. The readership included lawyers, musicians, parents, teachers, kids and teens. A Russian librarian and a retired US senator were among the people who found fun through the thing I had done merely to stave off boredom. The community became a source people could turn to even for help or answers completely unrelated to games. If you were in a bind or needed to know something, chances were that somebody on the Audyssey discussion list could and would offer help in timely fashion.
Naturally, I'm very proud of what I and those who believed in the community that grew out of Audyssey Magazine have accomplished. I'm even more profoundly thankful for the new horizons this experience opened to me. I can't think of a better example of the enormous power the Internet opens up to all of us. This is what can happen when it becomes possible and relatively easy for blind people to contribute to a cause larger than themselves. The Internet eliminates all geographical barriers. Perhaps, you have a keen interest in something. Why not share it with the online world? It costs nothing but time and effort and the rewards can be life-changing. They've certainly been so for me.
There are many different Email lists and Email magazines which you can receive and participate in on an absolutely equal footing with everyone else regardless of your disability. Nobody will be able to tell if you can't type very fast. You can check the spelling of your messages and take your time editing before sending them. Email is one of the most simple ways of participation online. On Tom Lorimer's site at:
you will find a "Join a mailing list" link which will present you with a larger collection of lists whose topic you might be interested in.
Before you go too deeply into these lists, you should be aware that most of them have their own policies which all members are expected to uphold. These will likely be sent to you after you subscribe to the list. It's always a good idea to save a copy of these rules in addition to any information such as user names, passwords, methods of subscribing and leaving, etc. Keep in mind that people won't always interpret the emotion behind your words correctly. Email is so easy and quick to type up that people treat it much like casual speaking. Unfortunately, it lacks the ability to convey tone of voice. As a result, things can become heated rather unexpectedly. Particularly when you're offering criticism or explaining something, take the extra thirty seconds to make as certain as you can that people won't misinterpret your well-meant remarks as attacks. This problem can very frequently occur and get out of control on Email lists. It's best to approach things in these online communities with a very thick skin. Even if somebody responds aggressively or insultingly to a message, keep in mind that the original message's intent might have been misunderstood. Always remember that what you write is not necessarily private. Lists keep archives of messages which can be searched by other members or quite often by anybody at all. Also, once you've sent a message, there is no taking it back. Your words are out there now and there's nothing you can do but offer an apology if you later regret what you've written.
Keep in mind that you shouldn't give away sensitive information such as your bank account, home address or the like via Email unless there's a specific need to. Also, never respond directly to an Email which appears to come from your bank, PayPal, or another financially or personally important place. Always go to the appropriate web-site with your browser. Don't click on a link provided in the Email. Chances are that it is spam. The genuine bank or other online place of business likely hasn't sent the message and had no idea that you have it. PayPal users may get quite a number of these messages. I certainly have. Some of these may indeed be genuine. That's why it's a good idea to go to your account once in a while and make certain that everything is normal. I got a number of messages once saying that the policy of using PayPal had changed and that I needed to update my account. I finally decided to go to PayPal at:
and check on whether these reminders were real or not. I was surprised to see that indeed they were. I only had a short time to update my policy before my use of PayPal would have been limited. The only time you should click on a link in such messages is when it makes sense that you couldn't go through the web site. A good example of this is when you're verifying Email addresses. PayPal needed me to verify that my Email address was genuine and provided a link in an Email they sent me. By clicking on that link, I quickly indicated that my address was in fact legitimate. The email with the link arrived very shortly after I signed up so I knew it was genuinely from PayPal. It made sense for me to click on that link. As long as you think before blithely clicking on links in messages and have Internet security software running, you should be quite safe from the more nasty effects of the plague of spam out there.
Despite its drawbacks including spam, Email is a fantastic addition to life for people wanting to expand their horizons and learn more. There are many different programs called Email clients which will let people send and receive mail. Users of Windows operating systems will start with Outlook Express or Windows Mail if they are using Vista. They may also make use of Eudora as an example of an accessible alternative. Outlook Express has certainly been more than adequate for my needs.
Let's go on a brief tour of my email client of choice as I check my email, read any I might receive and send a message. Your email client might have different menus and slightly different names for things but the basics will always be the same since the purpose of all email clients is the same. The first thing to do is open the client. I've elected not to have an icon for it on my desktop so I go to the start menu and into the "programs" menu. I then type the letter o. Since nothing else uses that letter currently, I'm taken directly into the program as it launches. I've configured it so that I always start in my in box. This change is made in the "options" dialog which you can get to by going over to the tools menu. This is only one of several folders. You can make more folders for certain messages if you want to have your email more organized. This can be very useful once you've joined one or more email lists which are high-traffic. There are times when you just want to look at email sent specifically to you rather than the groups you belong to. That's getting a little ahead of ourselves. For now, all email will be placed in your in box. Any mail waiting to be sent will be in your out box. There are also folders for draft copies of messages, sent items, and deleted messages. If you accidentally delete a message in Outlook Express, it will still be in the "deleted items" folder until you empty that folder or close Outlook Express. If you want to prevent items in the "deleted items" folder from being permanantly deleted until you specifically order the folder emptied, you can inform Outlook Express of your wish in the "options" dialogue box. Go to the "maintenance" tab and you'll find the checkbox which you can uncheck so that items aren't deleted when Outlook Express closes.
To see if I have any new email, I go to the tools menu using the alt key and then arrowing right over the file, edit and view menus. I then arrow down to the "send and receive" submenu. Arrowing right opens this menu and puts me on the first option which is "send and receive all". That's what I'd like to do so I hit the enter key. You may notice that there is a shortcut key for doing this. I could do the same thing by simply hitting control-m. Learning these shortcut keys for tasks you do often can save you time and keystrokes in the long run. However, you should take the time to explore the menus in your software and become familiar with what they have to offer. When Outlook Express has finished retrieving my new mail, I hear a small doorbell-like sound indicating this. Looking in my in box, I find a message from Tom Peters. He belongs to an initiative run by American libraries using accessible software to host online events which anybody can attend. Emails are like forms with different headers or fields containing information. The first field shows who the message is from. The next field displays the date and time the message was sent assuming things are set up the same way. It's possible to change the layout of information as well as which information is shown. The next field shows who the message was sent to. In this case, the message is addressed to the OPAL email list to which I belong. The next field is where the subject is displayed. A message has a subject line which should let you know briefly what the message is about. This lets you see if you're interested enough to read the message without having to open it up. As this particular announcement doesn't interest me, I elect to delete the message. It's now moved into my deleted items folder.
Had I chosen to read the announcement, I would have hit the enter key which would open the message and place me at the top of the message body. This is where the text of the message is. I could then read the message using the down arrow or the key combination which lets me read an entire document continuously. You may have things configured so that messages automatically start being read to you. It all depends on what your access technology has been set up to do. In some cases such as if you're using Thunder, you may have to configure your client to read messages as plain text rather than as html. In outlook Express, you do this in the "options" dialogue which you get to via the "tools menu. Go to the "read" tab using the left and right arrows once you're positioned on the "general" tab. When you get to the "read" tab, use the tab key to cycle through the items in that section. There's a checkbox which tells Outlook Express to read all messages as plain text. Hit the space bar to check or uncheck the box. Remember to tab to the "apply" button and hit the space bar. This applies your changes if you've made them. You can then go to the ok button. Links won't be active if you're reading messages in plain text so you'll have to copy and paste links to sites instead of just clicking on them. That as well as hearing all sorts of extra characters will be the most obvious effects of reading messages containing HTML as plain text. All those weird characters actually tell the computer to display things in a different way. If your access technology can handle HTML messages as most can, you shouldn't hear all the strange characters. Those are pretty much the basics of reading emails. It's quite simple really. Now, let's look at writing an email.
There are a few different ways of composing an email. You can create one from scratch, reply to an email you've been sent, or forward an email to one or more people. Your email client will have options for doing all of these. Let's take the case of sending an original message since the other options are essentially doing the same thing with more information included. To send a new message using Outlook Express, I use the control-n shortcut. I could also go into the "file" menu using the alt key, go down to the "new" submenu, and then right which gets me to "new mail message". Hitting enter on that will open a new message form and put you on the "to" field. Assuming you've set up Outlook Express, it will fill in the "from" and "date" headers. To go between parts of an email, use either tab or shift-tab to cycle through the sections. After I fill in the "to" header with the email address of the person I want to contact, I hit the tab key to get to the next field. You may encounter fields labelled "cc" and "bcc". This is "carbon copy" or "blind carbon copy". If you want to send the same message to more than one person, use one of these fields. Separate multiple email addresses with semicolons. The difference is as follows: If you put addresses of additional recipients in the "cc" field, people receiving your message will be able to see the addresses of other people who received it. This isn't always desired as people may not want others to know their email address. Also, you personally might not want people to know who else is receiving the message. Simply use the blind carbon copy or bcc field to enter the addresses of people you want to receive your message and they won't see each other's addresses. The next field over is where you put the subject of your message. This single line should contain a brief phrase which lets the reader know what your message is about. For instance, a subject might say "yesterday's game" or "your farming ideas". This lets the potential reader decide whether and/or when to read the message. The next field is where you write the body of your message. After that's done, the email can be sent on its way.
That ought to give you enough of a basic working knowledge of email to get you started. A little patience and consulting with the online help of your particular client of choice will let you master this form of communication quite quickly and painlessly. Creating folders and message rules, attaching pictures or other files, creating a signature which appears on all your messages, etc, are typically options which a little effort and time will allow you to take advantage of. Go through all the menus of your email client of choice and don't be afraid to use the built-in help. Searching for terms you don't understand as well as help or guides for the software you've chosen will also potentially prove useful. Finally, you can now use email to seek help from friends or other people who use the same software as you. It's time we moved on to cover other areas of Internet communication.
7.2-- Text and Voice Chat
Things were really starting to get going in accessible games. The community of gamers was well into the hundreds and a number of game developers had arisen. I had recently joined a community called Audio-tips and was very impressed with being able to talk to people at no cost no matter where they were as long as they were members of the site. One night, I decided to start a weekly chat session about accessible games. I hadn't given very much notice of this to anybody so I was quite surprised at the eventual turn-out of some thirteen of us. This included at least two game developers. Many more of these would attend in future chat sessions. As more game developers joined the band-wagon, more of their fans showed up in hopes of being able to talk to them. It was such an amazing enhancement going from text sent back and forth interpreted by synthetic speech to being able to truly talk to each other. I already felt a keen responsibility for the community I had unwittingly started with my magazine. This made it all hit home that much more powerfully. Short of actually attending a physical gathering, it was as close as we could all get and a whole lot better than simple email. You could hear the excitement as developers discussed their plans and they could get an immediate sense of what their fans thought. These were real people who were passionate enough about accessible games to coordinate their schedules so they could attend. That sense of exhilarating novelty has since faded somewhat but the effectiveness of such tools has only grown with time as more people sign up with one or more of these special sites set up for blind people to communicate in this manner.
This communication is made possible by many different programs. Most of these involve installing what is called a chat client on your computer. This software connects your computer to a central server set up to facilitate communication between people. I've been using this kind of communication since the early 1990's when it was done over phone lines and bulletin-board systems. Today, the Internet has completely removed the need to worry about distance and costs of any kind. You can communicate freely for as long as you like with people from anywhere in the world as long as they too are similarly hooked into the Internet and have the same chat client. If you have a microphone and a multi-channel sound card, you can talk to people directly. Any modern personal computer will likely have a multi-channel sound card built into it. Only people using older equipment are likely to find that their sound card won't let them use a screen-reader and chat via voice over the Internet at the same time. This works even between large numbers of people. I've attended countless events and classes run using this kind of technology.
To take part in chat communities, you'll typically have to register at the web site hosting the community. In some instances, you will merely be asked to type in your name whenever you enter a chat room. An example of this is Our place which is run by ACB Radio. No registration is required to talk in those rooms. However, this means that there is no real accountability. People can enter any name they like and nobody is moderating the rooms in case there are trouble-makers. These people are out there. Sadly, it's not hard to completely wreck a good conversation in progress. The communities which make their users register to use their facilities are run by groups of people who keep things orderly and hold people accountable for their conduct. Events and rooms are more likely to have people in them who are entrusted with moderator powers. If people use foul language in a room meant to be safe for children or decide to hold down the key and babble inanely, these moderators can step in and restore order. Registration is normally free. Sometimes, there are two levels of membership where you can participate in some events or enter certain rooms only after paying a membership fee. It all depends on who runs the community and what purpose it serves.
In most cases, people take turns holding down a key in order to talk. They then release the key when they've finished speaking and somebody else has a turn. It is usually also possible to type text into a chat window. Newcomers should be aware that just because it's possible to type text rather than talk, it's not always encouraged. This is because people find it hard to listen to the synthetic voice they'll likely be using to operate their computer in addition to the voice of whoever's talking. Until you find out otherwise, it's usually best not to type text unless people ask you for information or you urgently need to say something. For instance, you might want to type the word "break" so that people know you want to talk. This is good if you have to leave for some reason and don't want to simply disappear without saying goodbye. Also, if you get a phone call, you can type in a note to tell people that. This way, they'll know why you haven't answered them or why you might not have heard everything that was said.
I'll now go through each of the main voicechat communities set up to be accessible to blind people. There may very well be more out there which I'm unaware of. However, this should give you a number of safe places to start out. Each new listing will be preceded by a double asterisk. If a community description doesn't appeal to you, simply skip to the next double-asterisk and read on.
This community is set up to be a free and safe place for people to chat with each other. It makes use of a special chat client designed to be as friendly to access technology as possible. The owners of the community insist that people use their real names. Events include movies, bible studies, singing, and more.
**For The People:
Note: Dashes are between each word in the above link.
This Internet community is one of the most active serving the blind community. There are ones which use better software, but the volunteers who run For The People seem to know how to keep things safe, lively and friendly. Everyone must register with the site before they can chat. Registration is free and means that people are accountable for their conduct. You need to have a microphone plugged into your computer. Membership is completely free of charge. Due to the guidelines and moderators present, this community is also about as safe as things get for children online.
ACB Radio has set up this collection of chat rooms for people to use. Some are named for specific purposes but the only time I've ever seen any degree of control be exercised is when a room is used for recording events for broadcast on ACB Radio. Otherwise, they're open to absolutely anybody and no registration is required. You should use some caution in these rooms as there's no way of telling whether people are using their real names.
**The Zone Bbs
This community is set up to resemble a bulletin board system or BBS in terms of its atmosphere. However, it takes full advantage of the modern Web interface. Headings, combo boxes and links are the order of the day. The Zone features a very simple and effective instant messenging system allowing people on the site at the same time to communicate directly with the whole group or each other more privately. To update the messages displayed on the site, one need only refresh the page or click on a link taking people to a different area of the site. It doesn't get much more simple than that. People can also communicate via voicechat if they don't mind installing and setting up a chat client called Ventrillo.. Excellent instructions are provided on the site. One thing to note about the Ventrillo experience is that it allows for more than one person to talk at the same time. That can be a bit confusing if too many people are in the same room. It's quite different than most other communities which make people take turns having the floor. You can also call the Zone by phone. Forums, games and more can be found on the Zone. While you can decide to become a paying member, you don't have to. A group of people on the Zone keep things orderly and make certain there is accountability.
This member-supported community is extremely well-run and has a wide variety of scheduled events to keep it lively. There are many different rooms to suit various topics and there are people in charge of moderating things to keep everyone accountable. Paying for membership entitles you to increased access to events and some other bonuses. However, there are rooms and events available for non-paying members. The chat software used by this site is extremely accessible and was designed by blind people for blind people. There are scripts for users of Jaws for Windows. These are helpful but it is quite possible to use the chat software without them.
7.3-- Instant Messengers
These chat communities are an excellent thing for hooking up with other blind people. However, not too many sighted folks seem to use them. They generally prefer the use of what are known as instant messengers. These programs are usually free to obtain and use. They are normally left running in the background while your computer is on. Once you and someone you want to contact have exchanged the user names or email addresses used to identify each other, you'll be able to tell when a person is available and communicate with them. Some instant messengers like Windows Live Messenger allow you to talk via voice, send small voice clips back and forth, share files, and do other things than simply type to each other. All instant messengers allow that last capability by definition. I would include Skype in the same category of software despite its being designed mainly for voice communication. It also keeps track of which contacts are online and available.
Which messengers are accessible to you depends on the access technology choices you've made and the operating system you're using. Windows users have many different options. I've never been a particularly keen user of these programs and can therefore only offer general advice on their use. Fortunately, there is always built-in help or fellow users to be referred to for specific instructions. Most of these programs are free to obtain and use. That's right! You can be in Canada and know when your friend in England is also online and available to chat. You can then chat for as long as you like without anybody paying long distance charges. It's a wonder the phone companies are still in business.
You'll naturally be wondering why it is that I don't have one of these programs running constantly. Basically, it's because they often directly intrude into other things you're doing. I do a lot of writing and other activities on the computer which require that I not be distracted from my thoughts. I'll be working away when suddenly, some well-meaning fool on my list of contacts decides it's time to strike up a typed conversation with me. One second, I'm hearing what I expect to hear my computer saying as I put it through its paces. The next, it starts announcing whatever they've typed in. I could be in the middle of reading the most absolutely profound piece of wisdom in months and that'll suddenly change to: "Hi Mike. What's up?" I might have finally conquered my writer's block and thought of a brilliant idea. However, before I can write enough of it down for it to be safe, my instant messenger feels the need to tell me that person x has just signed in or out. That pronouncement completely derails my train of thought. The best idea I've had in days is destroyed in the wreckage never to occur to me again. There's nobody to blame but me for not remembering that I had set my instant messenger to automatically sign me in when I booted my computer and was online. That's why I don't run any of those messengers unless there's somebody I specifically want to contact.
I also find it somewhat difficult juggling two or more separate conversations at once when everyone talks with the same synthetic voice. I know, damn it! That makes me a grumpy old dinosaur from another era. Frantically trying to read a conversation history whose content is continuously added to while formulating an answer which may well already be inappropriate to the current context just isn't where the fun is at for me. It leaves me feeling like a digital deer caught in cybernetic headlights about to be turned into road kill on the information superhighway. Once you've become widely known for something you've done online, you should be very careful who you let onto your contacts list. Often, before I whittled down the contacts on my list, I had the experience of logging in to talk to one person only to have six or seven people seem to all pounce on me at once for a chat. That can be somewhat disconcerting given my inability to keep multiple threads of separate conversation going smoothly in my brain.
In all fairness, there are a lot of ways you can take charge of the situation with instant messengers. You can only actually be signed in when you choose to be and just have the program loaded. You can also change your status displayed to other users which can say that you're busy, away, etc. If users are being too bothersome, you can block them and delete them from your list of contacts. You have quite a lot of control over your experience as long as your familiar with all your options. Many blind people I've talked with have no problem carrying on six or seven different conversations while working and listening to music at the same time. While I have the computer skills to do that, my mind just couldn't cope with all those different streams of input at once. I must be getting old. Before you start using your instant messenger or messengers of choice, take the time to explore the software and be familiar with your options, privacy settings, etc. Like security software, this is one of those cases where you definitely want to be the master of it rather than the other way around.
Lets have a look at a very popular instant messenger called Skype. Of all such software I've messed around with so far, it has come to be a favourite. The developers are aware of their blind users and have gone to some trouble to make their software more accessible. Additionally, there may very well be special files produced to increase the functionality of Skype with whatever screen reader you may have chosen. There are such files for Jaws for Windows as well as Windoweyes. To download this free software, go to:
The site does quite a good job of giving you the instructions you'll need to download and install Skype on your system. Once you do this, you'll be guided through the process of setting up a Skype account. Skype allows you either to type messages or talk to other users of Skype if you have a microphone hooked up to your computer. With a microphone, you can even make calls to people on normal telephones. However, doing this will cost you money and you'll need to buy what is called "skype credit". Doing this is very simple. Keep in mind, however, that any minutes you purchase will only be available for use for the next 120 days. If you make no use of that time prior to this, any minutes you might have will be forfeit. You will be given a warning via email before this happens. As long as you're talking or text-chatting with other Skype users via the software, you never have to pay a cent.
When Skype opens, the first thing you'll find yourself on is a list of contacts. I'm assuming here that you have Skype fully open and not residing in your system tray. One of the first things you should do is to use the "skype test call centre" to make certain that your microphone volume is set so that you can be clearly heard when chatting. To call the test service, find the appropriate contact in the list and press the enter key on it. Follow the instructions you'll hear and then listen to see how you sound. You're pretty much all set after this has been done successfully. There are a vast number of options in the Pull down menus. You should also pay a visit to the "options" dialogue box which you can access under the "tools" menu. In that dialogue box, you'll find a number of tabs containing many things which may be of interest to you. Also take the time to look through each Pull down menu and get to know this very useful and popular software.
Skype has facilities to let you search for users or participate in public chats which anybody may start up and host. Regarding the facility to start up and participate in these public chats, finding ongoing public chats may not be easy. I can find no central point where currently running public chats are kept track of so you'll hopefully be made aware of any which interest you by the people who decide to host them. Finding people for private chatting is conversely very simple to do. A facility for searching through the users online and available for chat can be found right in the Skype software. I've staved off boredom by chatting with people in many different countries. You can even chat with more than one person at a time simultaneously so that it's like being in a room full of people who can all talk at once. A lot of material has already been created concerning using Skype while blind. Therefore, I see no need to re-invent the wheel here. If you're interested, one source of further help and information is at:
You'll find that the more popular instant messengers work similarly to Skype in most respects. They'll use slightly different terms for things and have their options organized differently. However, once you've mastered one of these programs, getting a basic grasp on others won't be hard at all. They're an excellent way of keeping in touch with distant friends and relatives. Also, what better way of getting some technical help from a trusted computer-savvy acquaintance than by talking over an instant messenger client while both of you are at your computers? The only real dislike I have for them is that they present one more way that you're potentially always reachable by people. If you're not careful about setting boundaries, people can start expecting that you'll always be available. This happens to a certain extent already with email of course. People will freak out when they don't get an answer from you within the hour as if you should just always drop everything in order to pay attention to incoming calls or emails. The programs themselves are very easy to use. You'll quickly find out that the real trick is making certain that you integrate them in a reasonable manner into your life. I leave that entirely to your own skill and judgement and wish you the very best of luck.
7.4-- Blogs and Forums
Web logs or "blogs" as they're commonly called are essentially journals which the owner decides to post on the Internet for a given audience to read. This audience might consist of the owner's friends and associates. More commonly, the audience consists of anybody who's connected to the Internet and interested in whatever the blog is about. At the owner's discretion, readers may post comments on whatever the owner has written as well as each other's comments. The blog's owner has the ability to remove comments he or she deems unsuitable. Some blogs such as my own are public diaries of the lives of their owners. Others are started in order to cover a field of interest such as technology. Seeking information on pretty much any topic using a search engine such as Google will no doubt direct you to one or more blogs. There are many sites which allow people to create blogs for free. Two of these where blind people have constructed blogs are:
Unfortunately for blind people, many blog sites rely on CAPTCHA technology to combat their vulnerability to spam. This requires users to enter a code printed in such a way as to be impossible for machines to read but possible for humans. While this may very well cut down on spam and junk entries posted to blogs, it effectively blocks blind people from making independent use of sites which choose to employ this method of defence. Some sites will have an audible alternative which can be used where the code is spoken in a distorted fashion which is still understandable. Novices might find it very hard to type in what they hear quickly enough. I'm about as much a veteran as one can be and I find it frustrating. However, I give the industry credit for at least making such a method available and hope that you're lucky enough to stumble onto sites which go to the trouble of providing it.
To write a blog is to truly wield and project the power of words. Make no mistake about it. Words posted on blogs have had very real consequences both for their owners as well as for those who have been written about in such spaces. Friendships have been destroyed, marriages ruined and businesses damaged by false information. Blogs have been used as evidence in court cases. Write with care lest your words come back to haunt you one day. It's all too easy to post entries in a blog while angry. I should know. Given the concerns I have about their abuse, I started my own blog at the toughest time possible. At the beginning of 2007, my marriage of five years came to an end. It was a decision mutually arrived at. Nevertheless, it still hit me like a ton of bricks. Momentous turning points in life like that unleash a whole lot of raw negative emotion. Before things had come to that point, I had no idea I could sink to such emotional depths. I was incredibly angry at everything from adverse circumstances to numerous people up to and including my wife and myself for being daft enough to think it could have ever worked in the first place. Add to that the most extreme lack of sleep I've ever experienced and you've got all the ingredients for regrettable words. It would have been the most natural imprudent thing in the world to lash out with the weapons I'm most skilled in using. Tranquility and a healthy perspective are now thankfully firmly in hand. I can look back with some pride and forward in full confidence that I haven't written in anger things which would have been unfair to others.
Writing a blog was probably the best kind of therapy I could have found. It forced me to truly face my darkest thoughts and take ownership of them. Did I really believe this or that enough to have it out there for anybody to read? I tend to gravitate toward positive thinking about life in general and people in mine. As a result, I've often started entries fairly negatively and written myself out of frustration into far more uplifted contentment.
While security and user login procedures will likely differ between blog writing sites, the basics of posting to a blog are both standard and simple. You need to be comfortable with filling out forms online because that is in essence what you'll do in order to post a blog entry. You don't necessarily need to fill out everything in order. For instance, you can write the actual entry before you choose a subject or title which will serve as a heading for and link to the entry. Blogs often have a combo box with a list of moods you can choose from. Other possible features might let you control who can read your blog and who is allowed to post comments to a given entry. I use a site especially set up for blind people to write blogs on. You can too. It's completely free and friendly to access technology. Check it out at:
Here are a few more noteworthy blogs written by blind people. Visiting them will give you a feel for how blogs work in general and are an excellent entry point into the online blind community at large:
This site deals mainly with online shopping. Its owner keeps a lookout for bargains of special interest to blind people and alerts visitors to them. You'll also find other articles on the site which deal mainly with technology of particular use to blind people. A very interesting place to check out every couple of days or so.
This blog is written by "some dude in the access technology industry" as he himself puts it. It mainly concerns his viewpoint on what's happening with such things as screen-readers, portable reading devices, and anything else he might happen to find noteworthy. I've always found his take on things to be very interesting and tend to keep a lookout for new entries he might post.
This blog is written by a blind couple who discuss accessibility issues and how they deal with day to day life as far as accessibility goes. They are very passionate about being accessibility evangelists and have called much-needed attention to concerns with businesses as they have arisen. Keep tabs on this blog and you'll have a good idea of issues which may confront you as you venture out online.
This blog began focused on technology issues as related to blindness but has broadened dramatically in scope. It now deals with all manner of topics which are blindness related and nothing is too controversial. Fiction, essays and stories can all be found there as well as many in sites from the blog's owner. These personal glimpses into his life add an overarching dose of humanity to the proceedings.
Forums are run by sites wanting to provide a means for interested people to have ongoing discussions on given topics. Once people register and are approved by the forum moderator or owner, they can join in ongoing threads of discussion or start new threads which others may comment on. It's a lot like belonging to an email list. The quality of discussion depends upon the participants as well as how attentive the moderator or owner is to signs of trouble.
Keep in mind that it is absolutely impossible to have a lively ongoing discussion while being completely secure from troublemakers. Unless one or more people are put in charge of approval of every single posting, there's just no way. Parents and others responsible for children should take this into consideration before allowing children to sign up for forums. Steps such as banning offending members and deleting offensive messages can certainly be taken after the fact but there's no way to absolutely prevent such content which wouldn't also inhibit or drastically slow down conversation. Look for these forums on the sites of many accessible game developers and organizations. Another popular place for them is on social networking sites. Before directly contacting individuals, forums provide an excellent place where people can post their opinions and respond to those of others. Looking at various postings people have made can give a basic sense of their character. As with blogs, good skills in navigating web sites and filling in forms are what is required to make use of forums. In the technical aspects, these two forms of interactivity are very similar to each other. Typically, there are more limitations such as the length of what can be posted on forums. Conversation flow tends to be fairly rapid and transient.
7.5-- Virtual Conventions and Symposiums
Ordinarily, I love hot weather. The heat wave we experienced in early June of 2005 was beyond even my liking though. There was no chance at all I would get any writing done. Computer games were similarly far too taxing to contemplate seriously. Despite having our fans on full blast, the apartment was very stuffy. I needed something to keep me stimulated without requiring too much brain power on my part. I also needed a large and extremely cold drink. Fortunately, both of these needs could be met. Taking up a very large ice tea, I began looking through recent emails for any announcements of online events I could go to. As splendid luck would have it, the Ocusource Expo was taking place during this extreme heat from June 8 through the 11. Everything was made to be very simple from the registration process to entering draws for giveaways to visiting booths of agencies and vendors to doing presentations. Especially considering this was a first-time event, it went incredibly smoothly.
All sorts of interesting and innovative people gave presentations. The keynote address was delivered by one of the pioneers of descriptive movies and television. An organization in the States which offered blind people training for careers in hospitality, a man who escaped the World Trade Centre on September 11 with the help of his guide dog and fellow workers, and many other people gave lectures and answered peoples' questions directly. Representatives from many key access technology companies were also participating. There were drawings for prizes each day which I could easily enter into via the web site. In the evenings, they had entertainment including Pat Boone, a famous singer. We not only heard him sing but also had a chance to ask questions and talk with him. I found it absolutely incredible that this technology could be used to stage such a powerful event bringing all sorts of people who helped to shape the lives of blind people across North America together. I was able to talk to numerous interesting people including both guests and convention staff. A highlight for me was talking with Steve Baum who was responsible for the development of Kurzweil1000 which is the reading software I use for making sense of printed documents.
I was also able to volunteer to make a presentation on accessible games. The staff quickly found a time slot for me and explained what I needed to know to act as a moderator. Using the Ocusource technology, I was able to take my audience directly to the various web sites I discussed in my speech. Rough and ready as my presentation was, it seems to have been generally well received. I can't imagine a more powerful means for getting information directly to interested people than what Ocusource had running there.
I've attended many other events since which have involved guest speakers, panels of experts, interviews and classes. Wile they've certainly all been very interesting and rewarding, nothing since has matched that first Ocusource Expo in sheer scope and majesty. The presentations from that event are still available to be listened to. While much of the information is now somewhat dated, you can learn much that is still useful and get a sense of what can happen when people decide to use accessible chat technology to its fullest potential. Go to:
and look at the past events section of the calendar. There, you'll find the Ocusource expo. The full schedule is what you'll want to go to. From there, just click on any link to an event and you should be able to hear it. Not nearly as thrilling as attending live was but nevertheless interesting.
Presently, there are two other places specially set up for this style of online event which I am aware of. These events take place in chat rooms and are typically open to everyone. There are also archives of past events and you may find other related material such as presentation notes. One of these places is:
It is most widely known for its Tech Talk Training sessions where speakers discuss various technological and computer-related topics with anybody who wants to attend. This is an excellent and completely free resource and novices should definitely take advantage of it. Recently, I've attended a presentation on a new GPS navigation device called the Trekker Breeze. A representative from Humanware, the company responsible for producing this aid, gave a good sense of the device's capabilities and then answered questions from listeners after concluding his remarks. On another occasion, I had the distinct pleasure to spend an evening talking with Jim Kitchen. He is a true pioneer in accessible games and a most remarkable individual.
People should also look at:
where all kinds of interesting presentations, classes, lectures and so forth take place. This site is fully accessible but isn't strictly for blind people. OPAL stands for online programming for all libraries and it lives up to that acronym. Everything from books to emerging mediums like blogs to technology and how it effects libraries is talked about. Keep an ear on upcoming events which may be of interest to blind people. I once attended a nice online workshop about writing one's memoirs. As I'm presently working on an autobiographical book, it was most useful. Having the ability both to talk to each other and type in any important information as text which appears in everyone's chat window makes these chat clients very suitable for running classes and presentations.
8-- Online Shopping
I've never particularly liked shopping for its own sake. I have friends who'd cheerfully spend entire days in stores if the occasion presented itself. That would drive me right around the bend. There has to be a specific purpose or item I'm after to get me out there shopping. The advent of online shopping has certainly given marketers more of a fair crack at me these days. Getting there and back isn't an issue. You also don't have well-intentioned people trying to influence your buying decisions. You know what I'm talking about. The friends and family who might not mention that scrumptious candy because they're worried about your weight or the people who want to help you but are pressed for time. No such troubles come at us blind consumers who take the online route. We can explore every virtual aisle from end to end taking as much time as we need. We are, of course, still reliant on the people working on these shopping sites to write accurate and truthful descriptions of products and provide key information such as instructions for using them. To offset that, however, we have the Internet. People often write reviews of products as well as other information about them for others to read. Search engines are incredibly useful for finding all the positive and negative things about a product or shopping site. There have even been occasions where I've decided on impulse to purchase items while surfing the Internet.
When it comes to gift purchases, I am especially appreciative of the independence online shopping affords me. I can do my Christmas shopping without anybody else having a clue what I'm thinking of for them. I don't have to be a burden to already overworked and stressed people as I do my last-minute preparations. I can take as long as I like to go over product descriptions and search for other ideas for people. If an amazing idea for a present strikes me at five AM in the morning, I can pursue it right away. Just keep in mind that items may take a while to ship. Don't literally wait until the last minute or you'll not be able to play Santa terribly well. Also, don't pick the kind of gift whose very nature undoes all that nice secrecy.
My ex-wife loves expensive and special coffees. I found a fantastic place online with a terrific selection of flavoured coffee. Nearly everything went well. The site was fully accessible and I was able to pick and purchase precisely what I wanted without difficulty. The gift arrived in very timely fashion. However, you just take a crack at hiding the delicious smell of said coffee from your significant other in a one-bedroom apartment and see how far you get. She of course knew what she was getting long before I wanted her to despite my best efforts to the contrary.
Before you begin to take advantage of online stores, we'll just take a moment to go over some safety basics. Make certain that you are comfortable with using the Internet. You've got to be proficient at using things such as forms, combo boxes, radio buttons, and the like. I would go so far as to recommend that people interested in online shopping go to the next section where I discuss accessible computer games and become proficient playing some of the online games. I can't think of a better way to learn how to use all of the necessary web site elements without becoming bored to tears. If you have no stomach for games and decide just to try diving right in, you'll do fine as long as you're both careful and patient. There's no way you're going to accidentally buy anything and suddenly find boxes of stuff you didn't want arriving at your door. Until you provide the information, an online site will have no idea who you are or how to bill you. Just stick to the more well-known sites until you're more comfortable and experienced. Many of these have gone to the effort of making their sites more accessible to blind people. Online stores have different policies regarding returning items and may use different shipping methods. Before you make any purchases, make certain you're comfortable with these. Also, keep in mind that until you go to the checkout, you don't actually buy anything. Items are merely added to your shopping cart. You can always view your cart and edit its contents.
Having a credit card isn't an absolute necessity for online shopping but it certainly provides an easy and widely accepted method of payment. Other options include using a debit card which is becoming more widely accepted. PayPal provides a means of payment either directly from a bank account or through a credit card which doesn't require online merchants to learn your personal bank or credit numbers. Regardless of how you choose to pay for what you purchase, make certain you have a way of checking your bank and credit card balances as well as reviewing recent transactions without needing anybody's assistance to do so. It is very unlikely but conceivable that your banking or credit card information could be stolen by hackers. Keeping track of your personal balance will at least clue you in more quickly that this may have happened. You might also want to use a third-party payment service like PayPal. Most online stores accept it and only PayPal has to know about your credit card information this way. This adds an extra layer of security. PayPal along with most credit cards offer consumers protection against the possibility of credit card fraud. As long as you take proper precautions, you ought to have a good online shopping experience. While it's important to be aware of the danger, it is equally important to keep it in its proper perspective. PayPal or any major credit card offer their users protection from theft. Check on your balance regularly and have the information you need to quickly alert your chosen service should you suspect charges for things you didn't purchase. There's probably more of a chance you'll get robbed or have your bank information swiped while you're physically out shopping.
Most sites will let you browse and even add items to your shopping cart prior to registering with them. This lets you determine your comfort level with the mechanics of a particular online shopping destination before giving them any of your information. I've done extensive online shopping for over five years and never had my details misused in any way. However, there's no point in signing up for places you're not comfortable using. There should be plenty of information available to you on a site as well as reviews and comments posted to the Internet by users of a given online destination. I typically don't go overboard with the research. However, I don't often stray from well-established places unless I'm after things such as audiodramas or other products which are more off the beaten path. There are many items obtainable only online which are well worth taking the cybernetic equivalent of roads less travelled. A few very well known places to get started with are:
Most major retail outlets will have sites for people to purchase online from. If you find that you appreciate a certain brand of store in the real world such as Futureshop, you'll likely find the online site to be useful for checking on what new products might be available instead of having to actually go to the place. Also, take advantage of the "more info" and other links associated with items. When shopping for groceries, you may find useful information such as preparation instructions and ingredients. One blog called Blind Bargains is a place run by blind people keeping track of online bargains and sites which are particularly relevent to blind customers. Go to:
and check them out.
Nothing prevents stores from doing things differently. However, here's how you'll find they generally work. When you go to their site, you don't have to sign in before you start searching and adding things to your shopping cart. You'll find a search form where you can type in precisely what you're looking for should you know the name of it. If not, you can browse by categories or departments. There will either be links leading to each such category or a combo box which lets you select. Many stores have both methods available. Once you're in the category you're interested in, you can look at the products. There may be several pages of products which you will often be able to have sorted in various ways. For instance, you can sort items by price, brand or other such denominator.
Let's go to:
as an example. On that site for the Discovery Channel for television, you'll find a few links which lead to their online shop. This sells a wide range of books, dvds of their shows, toys, and more. Lets suppose I'm interested in their dvd selection. I can look for the link which will take me to the dvd department. Once there, I can look at bestsellers, specific shows, or go to the "new and just aired" section. I'm interested in recent additions so I decide to click on that link. One of the first things I come to is the sorting combo box. I can sort everything by best seller or popularity, price from high to low or vise versa, or by alphabetical order. I believe that what I'm interested in acquiring will be fairly popular so I decide to leave it sorted by best seller. There are a total of fifty-three items available. I'm happy to find a "view all" link which puts all of the items up at once instead of separating them by pages one has to use a combo box, numbered links or "next/previous" links to wade through. You may prefer having such divisions to more quickly navigate to what you're after. I don't end up finding what I'm interested in there. Chances are good that the Race to Mars and Mars Rising documentaries haven't been released in dvd sets just yet. I'm writing this not even two months after the shows have premiered.
Not quite ready to give up, I decide to check out the dvds by subject. I go there and find the "earth and space" category. There are 68 dvds in it so I choose to "view all" as is my preference. Alas, I'm correct that they haven't yet been released. However, while browsing through, I found the Cosmos: Carl Sagan DVD Set. I remember hearing a bit about that series. As I recall, the series was said to be quite captivating. I decide to give it a closer look despite its $129 price. I click on its link. This takes me to another page where a heading lets me quickly go directly to where information about the product starts. If you can, take advantage of things like headings to more quickly move around web-pages to what you're interested in. I hit the insert-f6 combination which Jaws uses to bring up a list of any headings on the current page. The first one is what I want so I tab over to "go to heading" and hit enter on that. There's quite a lot of information including product description, a preview clip, price, episode titles, the fact that the entire series is 13 hours, and a number of reviews submitted by obviously very happy customers in this case. I decide to listen to the preview clip and click on that link. It comes up nicely. I enjoy a few minutes and believe I may eventually save up some money and acquire it. However, it's well outside the price range at which I might have bought it on impulse. Had I wanted to, I would have looked for the "add to cart" link. Other sites have a button instead of a link. Some call it a shopping basket, shopping cart, etc. You'll have to review a site more thoroughly until you get used to how things are handled on it. There will be slightly different terminology and other such minor differences.
Once I had added any items I wanted to the cart, it would be time to go to the checkout process. At this stage, if you have an account set up at the store already, you should log in. This will greatly simplify making your purchases as things like your address, email, and possibly your credit card information will be already present. Otherwise, many places will let you simply fill in that information and make your purchase without registering an account with the store. I'll typically set up an account at most online stores which I suspect I'll be buying more than one time from. After you've registered with a site, you'll be able to log in using your user id such as your email address or name plus your password. A good habit to get into is to save any emails you receive when creating such accounts so that you have a record of your user identification on sites you plan on shopping from. I also have a file with passwords and such information all in one place. Keep any emails you receive after making a purchase. They can be helpful should any problems come up and you need to prove you purchased an item. I've never had such an issue in nearly ten years of online shopping. However, better safe than sorry. This is particularly the case if you're buying digital goods such as mp3s or software.
I hope this gives you a good idea of how online shopping works and what you can expect when visiting online stores. Keep common sense in mind and you ought to do just fine. Online retailers had to overcome a lot of initial consumer fears about buying things online. This has left a legacy where, for the most part, stores go out of their way to take care of their customers. There are usually numbers you can call if you have any questions as well as email addresses and feedback forms. Shipping and return policies are very clearly laid out for people to read. The newfound sense of consumer independence I've gained has given me at least an inkling of what these people who can spend entire days browsing stores must experience. Added to this is that online shopping gives us a means of obtaining many things which would never make it onto store shelves. Audiodramas are a terrific example of this. Take a cybernetic stroll to:
You'll find many audio treats there which you'd never otherwise have come across in a million years. When you download any digital content such as from this site, be certain that you right-click on the download links you'll be given. While using Internet Explorer, this lets you "save target as". This way, you'll save the file to your hard drive rather than have it open as soon as it has finished downloading. Don't worry if you don't get it right the first time. ZBS and other sites will usually give you more than one chance to download something you bought. You'll be able to download items for a given period of time or a number of times before your download links become invalid. Using Jaws for Windows, go to the link which will either say "download", or be an actual file name like audiodrama.zip. Next, hold in the insert key or the caps lock key if you're using Jaws on a laptop. While holding the jaws key in, hit the number nine. That will simulate right-clicking with a mouse. The number eight is the left-click should you ever need that. This will bring up a context menu. Go down through it with the down arrow key until you come to the "save target as" option. Hit the enter key on that and make certain you're satisfied with the file name as well as where it will be saved. I have a "downloads" folder on my computer where I save things to. I can then know where everything new will arrive and move it to other folders after I've safely obtained it. Buying digital content is pretty much that simple.
Purchasing other items is conceptually the same. The only change is that you need to consider shipping costs versus how quickly you need the item. You'll have a choice of shipping methods most of the time. Best of luck to you in your online shopping adventures.
9-- Computer Games
Computer games are a major part of today's culture. In fact, it is often remarked that people spend more money on games than they do on movies. Even people who don't play video games know the basic idea of Space Invaders or Pac man. While the computer games industry for sighted people has been growing for the past three decades, the accessible games industry couldn't even formally be called one. It has only had around a decade of serious expansion of content as dedicated individuals have begun to explore what is possible and what profits there might be in producing accessible games. We're just beginning to scratch the surface. The average blind person would most likely not know about even the most successful accessible games produced specifically for their enjoyment. This is a shame. In my experience, there's no better way to truly learn about and become comfortable with computers. We learn best when we're having so much fun that we aren't even consciously aware that we're doing that at all.
Don't make the mistake of comparing apples to oranges. You won't find orchestral music, movie-quality sound and Hollywood actors doing voices for audio games. The market just can't support that kind of thing. That having been said, don't assume that you won't be in for high-quality fun. Developers have accomplished quite a lot with limited resources. The best art in the world can't make up for poor implementation and game play mechanics. Different doesn't mean dummed down or inferior. These accessible games are an excellent way for newcomers to computers to learn and practice important skills and get comfortable with their machines.
When I started playing computer games, text-based games were pretty much all there was for blind people. Things have certainly expanded since then. Modern sound cards and mainly the Windows operating system have made it possible for developers to produce sound-based games. Now, it's possible to play everything from Pinball and Pac-Man to racing cars, shooting aliens and driving tanks. This section will introduce you to these two types of games, text and sound-based games. In addition, you'll learn about games you can play via the Internet with people around the world. It has been an absolute pleasure for me to have been a part of helping this still very young industry to emerge. If there's enough of a call for it, I may eventually write more of a book on accessible games and my experience with them. In the meantime, those wanting more to read about accessible games than I've written in this guide should go to the following three sites on the web:
Go to this site and to the link called "fantastic games for windows and where to find them". Phil Vlasak is the proprietor of PCS Games and keeps a comprehensive and well-maintained list of available accessible games. This includes free games as well as commercially sold games produced by himself and his fellow developers. There are also games for other operating systems and accessible devices.
This site features up-to-date news on accessible games as well as all issues of Audyssey Magazine. In addition, it features more reviews of various games plus articles of interest to people considering game development or research in this area.
This site is run by the people currently responsible for the distribution of Audyssey Magazine and the management of the Blind Gamers list. This email list is populated by the most enthusiastic readers of Audyssey. If you have questions about accessible games, the people you'll encounter on that list ought to have the answers you're after.
I'm not about to sit here and cover every accessible game on the planet. There are well over a hundred now even if you don't count the hundreds of text-based games out there. The links I've given you above will pretty much do that for me. However, here are some sites which offer free accessible games to get you started:
Perhaps one of the most universally popular people in the accessible games scene today, Jim Kitchen has been producing free games for the blind community since the days of Dos. You'll find a wide variety of games for the taking on his site from Monopoly to Pong. For novices in accessible games, this site is one you truly shouldn't miss. Be certain to follow all instructions when installing his games.
This company produces many different games and offers a free demonstration set to get people started. You'll also find other resources such as links to other accessible games sites. Relatively new, this company has some fresh ideas and tends to focus on more simple slower-paced games.
This company is run by a generous developer. He has not only decided to produce a totally free turn-based strategy game. He has also set aside a section on his site where free games produced by other developers who can't host their creations themselves can be downloaded. I particularly direct your attention to some offerings from the former company Danzgames. All games from that company are now designated as freeware thanks to Dan Zingaro's good will. Thanks to Thomas Ward's generocity, you can partake in Mr. Zingaro's legacy. There are a couple of fantastic word games as well as Superdeakout, a superb example of what an accessible arcade game can be like. To go directly to these free offerings, go to:
That ought to get your itch for fun taken care of in the short term. Now, I'll go over the three categories of text-based games, sound or audio games, and the new frontier of online games.
9.1-- Text-based Games:
There wasn't much to explore in the one-room flat in Sarajevo. The only prominent furniture was an old dresser with a locked drawer. Faded art adorned the walls and an open window looked down to a street with a nearby cafe. I had been transported through time after correctly fitting a piece of a jigsaw puzzle into its proper spot plus making a few more deductions about how to proceed. Ending up in such an unassuming spot seemed a bit of a let-down after my sharp thinking. However, it was one of those times where quality wins over quantity. The attractive stranger who had lured me here from the 1999 New Year's Eve party I had started the game in was finally here and wanting to meet me. At last, I'm able to find out what all the fuss is about. The inventor of a time machine has staged the largest new Year's party in history in order to unlock the doorway of time. A monumental event was necessary to give the traveller a starting point from which he/she could hop to other major events in history like a surfer on waves. This gives Black a chance to attempt to change history. It becomes clear that the flat my antagonist and I are standing in was chosen so that World War I could be prevented. Black wants to kill the terrorist who is supposed to shoot the archduke and his wife. My antagonist brings in a sniper rifle for me to use. Good God! I was attending a New Year's party and now suddenly find myself at a turning point in history with a loaded rifle. The archduke's carriage pulls into view and stops. Suddenly, time is very much of the essence.
Either through my action or inaction, somebody is about to die. If I shoot the archduke, history will be preserved. World War I will happen just as it actually did. If I shoot the terrorist, history will change drastically. Who knows what happens when that Pandora's box gets opened up? If I do nothing, Black will shoot the terrorist. Should I shoot Black in order to preserve history as I've known it? Could I actually shoot someone who I find attractive given any provocation? Black is a character whose author, Graham Nelson, took pains to present as gender-neutral. I, being heterosexual, think of Black as a she. My next move will decide the fate of millions. However, I can take days to think over the ramifications if I wish. This is a piece of interactive fiction otherwise known as a text adventure. In such games, you are the central character in a story presented to you in text by the computer. You control the game by typing commands which generate responses from the computer as you try to advance the plot and solve puzzles.
The events I've described to you are the prelude to a journey through key events in twentieth century history which took me around two years of fairly constant playing to finally complete. In a quest to keep history from changing, I was lead on a pursuit through time to the sinking of the Titanic, Britain's decryption lab during World War II, the lab where Fleming discovered penicillin, a landing on the moon, and many more puzzle-filled key historical moments. It was another one of those experiences which brought history alive for me in a powerful way. Now, there was an ethical as well as an interactive dimension to it. There was also a text-based sixteen-piece jigsaw puzzle to be solved where the pieces were hidden in various historical settings. I was able to solve some sections in less than an hour. Others kept me stumped for months at a stretch. There were perhaps five occasions where I simply had to look at a walk through of the game to get the solution of a puzzle whose machinations absolutely stumped me or give up on the game entirely. The section on the Titanic was particularly poignant and frustrating. I had no real sense of what that ship was actually like until I could move around part of it and have my surroundings described to me. I suddenly had a much clearer sense of how massive the ship was and a new in site into the horrific disaster. I had no idea that the band kept playing even as the ship sank. A couple of the puzzles in that section kept me there for quite some time as I tried to figure out exactly what Black had changed.
There are literally hundreds of these text-based games around on the Internet. Stories ranging from romance to mystery to fantasy to comedy await you. Games come in different lengths and levels of difficulty. There are games for people of all ages. Not all of them are up to such superb quality as Jigsaw or the excellent adventures produced by Infocom back when this form of entertainment was in its glory. These adventures used to make their best authors a handsome living. Now, most such games are produced and given freely away for all to enjoy since there's not enough money in the art anymore. I've always been a strong advocate for introducing this wonderful mentally stimulating form of entertainment to blind people. It's a fantastic way to learn good typing skills while becoming engaged in something which is far more fun and can ultimately be very meaningful in its own right. The deep satisfaction I experienced upon completing Jigsaw after a two-year struggle was tremendous. These adventures were what truly inspired me to start learning more about my computer and how to type faster on it. I began to type faster not out of a sense of having to master a skill but because I wanted to know what happened next and was impatient to know what my actions would result in. I doubtless learned a lot more about objects and places than I'm fully conscious of while playing these games. Absolutely everything is described and manipulated by words. Having to grapple with the textual world rather than just absorb it like an ordinary story makes for a very interesting and often personally meaningful experience.
There are a few central points for interactive fiction on the Internet which you should be aware of. The first place to look for free text adventures is at:
This is the main repository for the many enthusiasts of interactive fiction around the world. There are likely more than a thousand games awaiting you there. Keep in mind that there are several different programming languages these games are written in. Some are for different computers. You'll need to find interpreters which will both run whichever kind of game you're interested in and will do so in a manner which is accessible to your technology. To play Jigsaw and hundreds of other games written in zcode, you can use the Winfrotztts interpreter. To obtain this, go to:
This special version of Winfrotz will speak the text of games out loud using any Sappi voice you have on your computer. There are many places you can obtain additional voices. Depending on the access technology choices you've made, you may already have several voices to choose from. One thing you should know about Winfrotztts is that it won't do as well at helping you to navigate a game's built-in help and hints. This is accessed by typing in the words "help", "hint", or "about" in most interactive fiction. To successfully use these menus, you have two options. you can simply count how many moves forward through the menu you need to make to select the option of interest. That can be hard when there are a lot of options. The other approach is to use your access technology on top of Winfrotztts. Within the help and hints menus, you hit the N or P key to go to the next or prior option. You then hit the Enter key to select a choice. Using your access technology while within a menu, read through the options with your review cursor. This way, you aren't moving the actual computer cursor and can find out which option it points to. Beside a selected option, you'll find a greater than symbol.
Finally, I should also point you to the only known source for commercial interactive fiction. Malinche Entertainment has produced a number of more lengthy interactive fiction adventures and sells them at a very reasonable cost. If you run into trouble, you can always send the author of the games a request for personalized hints written especially for you. This service is available to all customers. Check them out at:
These adventures aren't all the text-based entertainment there is. You can also find role-playing games like Nethack. It uses text symbols to form maps of the rooms and levels of a massive dungeon which you can adventure in. This can work very well with some screen-readers as well as braille displays. I can't think of a more amusing way to become an expert at using your screen review capabilities. If you become confused, you can rout your review cursor to your pc cursor and you'll find the at-sign representing your game character. Playing Nethack is about as unconventional a use of your access technology as you're likely to ever discover. There are also doubtless other more unconventional text-based games out there waiting to be found. Near the end of 2007 as I was working on this guide, another such treasure was found. It is called Smugglers 3
You can find it at:
It is a space exploration and trading game which puts you in command of a ship in a universe at war. You'll need to be very familiar with your access technology in order to make use of this game. Learn how to use your in dependant cursor to review the screen and click on buttons. This game was not designed to be accessible but is so by accident. The author of the game is now aware of his blind audience and future versions of the game will hopefully reflect this awareness.
9.2-- Audio Games
The attack was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Alien ships of three different types descended hoping to land before I could destroy them. One group descended straight down at a fairly high speed. There were a couple of them and one was less than two seconds from successfully landing. Another alien much closer to my position had raised its shield rendering it invulnerable to my lasers for a few seconds. I lunged across to zap the one on the far right which was almost on the ground. However, I had previously used too much of my turbo power and it ran out before I could get under the alien. Another similar vessel had snuck down the far left side and landed. I had been so focused on the other two that I had completely failed to notice that one.
As I tried to scoot under the shielded ship quickly enough to take it out, I heard the whirring sounds on the far left and right sides of the playing field as the two successful landers turned into walkers. Their clunking footsteps began to move slowly closer. If they got too close, they could drain my energy quickly by zapping me. I checked my energy state and discovered it was getting on the low side. Meanwhile, my possible salvation appeared above me in the form of an enemy flying saucer. If I could shoot it, these ships dropped items which would give me advantages if I could grab them before they disappeared. Flying saucers descended relatively slowly but wavered all over the place. It was currently right near the ship with shields. I headed that way and managed to shoot both the shielded ship and the saucer.
The explosions nearly masked the appearance of two new ships. One was another shielded ship and the other was armed with a powerful laser cannon. Also dropping from the sky was the item blown free of the destroyed saucer. It landed with a thump and its homing beacon activated emitting a constant beeping alert. I had to get the item before time expired and it disappeared. Unfortunately, it was very close to the walker approaching from the left. Getting too close to that could end my game. I figured there was still a chance that I could reach the item. However, I would have to pass under the laser-armed vessel to do so. Wishing I hadn't already exhausted my turbo power, I headed left. Tensing, I heard the rising whine as the enemy's laser cannon powered up. This was going to be very close. I had to time it so I passed under it just before it fired so it would shoot the wrong way. The clump clump of the left-most lander was getting ever closer and the homing beacon beeped urgently. I succeeded in avoiding the deadly laser blast from above and fired while moving under the shielded ship destroying it. The item was just about to disappear when I managed to grab it. It turned out to be the energy boost I needed. However, in grabbing it, I had come within range of the lander which proceeded to zap me. I quickly fired on it with my horizontal lasers hitting it four times to destroy it. However, this gave the other vessel which had fired the laser at me the opportunity to land and transform into another walker.
Situations like that one are common in the game Aliens in the Outback now sold by Draconis Entertainment. Check this game out as well as several other high-quality audio games at:
Plenty more auditory action awaits you in a multitude of other arcade-style audio games as well. You can race other cars around a track, drive a tank, be chased by ghosts through a maze, shoot it out with monsters, and much more. All of these games use 3d or stereo sound to portray the action taking place as well as your surroundings. While proceeding through a maze, for instance, indicator noises will tell you when it is possible to turn and which ways. You'll hear enemies moving around and the locations of items. Should you be using headphones or own surround-sound speakers, many games will take advantage of this to give you an even more absorbing experience. Naturally, it is very important that you set up your speakers correctly or play these games with headphones. Having left and right speakers on the wrong sides or having surround sound speakers positioned crookedly might not matter as much to sighted people. However, when you're using sound to determine which direction an enemy is approaching from, having the positions right becomes very critical indeed. In the free racing game Topspeed2 for example, you'll hear your opponents all around you as they start their engines prior to beginning the race. There are also accessible versions of board and card games, puzzles, pinball, and even a strategy game similar to Warcraft in development.
That last game lets you command knights, peasants, archers and more units in a fully audio environment. You must mine resources, build structures, fashion your army and fight opponents which can be either computer controlled or other actual players over the Internet. You'll be concentrating on directing your peasants when a group of enemy archers might suddenly approach and begin to attack them. You can set a force of your own soldiers moving with a few quick commands but will they get there in time to save anyone? Many audio games are given away completely for free. Others are sold commercially. The Internet is your main gateway to a whole lot of fun. Just go to the sites I provided in the introduction to this section on computer games and you'll have quite a lot to choose from.
One audio game which truly was a turning point in accessible games was Shades of Doom. This game was produced by GMA Games and is still available commercially at:
It was designed with a lot of input from the blind gaming community. The game was meant to be similar to Doom which was a very popular game in the sighted world. Many people mistakenly thought that Dave Greenwood's intention was to make a precise copy of Doom in accessible format which is absolutely untrue. Shades of Doom lets you move through levels of a complex where an experiment has gone horribly wrong. You must fight many mutants and find clues as well as data-wafers which will allow you to ultimately shut down the experiment. Everything happens in real time. As you move around, so do monsters who may have weapons. You'll be trying desperately to swing around and aim at an approaching enemy and have to dodge its shots at you. The action can get very intense particularly during higher levels of the game. Wind sounds tell you where corridors branch off as well as the echo's of your footsteps. Equipment in rooms will often emit sound to further differentiate locations and give players a positional awareness. Monsters coming up from behind players will have jungle drum sounds overlaying their regular noises to make it clear that they're behind the player. You can begin to appreciate how much thought went into the use of sound as a means of conveying positional information. Novices should be familiar with their keyboards before trying this game and be prepared to make quick use of a lot of buttons. It may be easier to play Shades of Doom with headphones initially.
Pinball was another smash hit when it was made accessible initially by James North. He was responsible for many of the most pioneering accessible games. Sadly, James North's company, ESP Softworks, went out of business some time ago. Fortunately, his games are now the property of Draconis Entertainment which continues to sell and occasionally update them. There are two pinball collections. ESP Pinball Classic contains the original six accessible pinball tables. These have themes ranging from Soccer to a haunted house. The somewhat more advanced ESP Pinball Extreme contains six brand new tables. You can wrack up points serving drinks in a bar filled with wacky patrons, shoot down enemy planes in the Top Gun table and enjoy four additional tables. This collection also features the ability to be expanded. The first such expansion consists of three tables which are added to the six already in ESP Pinball Extreme. By far, the favourite among these three tables in the Pinball Party Pack is Old Man Stanley's House. In this table, you score points for trashing the home of a naturally annoyed elderly gentleman. You must do as much as possible to cause chaos while not letting the destructive consequences go too far. Use your ball to smash his plasma tv, mess around in his bathroom, set his oven on fire and even rummage in his drawers if you can get the ball to go to the correct areas. A surprisingly satisfying and harmless way to appease that gleeful destructiveness within us all.
That's just a small sampling of what's on offer. Some styles of game are far more abundant than others. There are many Space Invaders style games as well as a number of versions of Sudoku. A few racing games have emerged over the years. Sports games haven't been explored very much yet. The most well-known one of those is a version of Bowling. A number of maze games have also been produced. You can't hurt your computer in any way by trying these games. Developers have gone to great lengths to make the process of installing their games very simple. This is also true when it comes to purchasing a game you would like to own the full copy of.
9.3-- Online Games
The latest craze to sweep the blind gaming world was Texas Holdem. I had certainly been drawn in by the powerful experience of being able to communicate and play this interesting Poker variant with people from anywhere at all. I had been asked a number of years ago whether a company offering a game you had to pay a subscription fee to would survive in the blind community. There hadn't seemed much chance of that given the tight economic conditions blind people had experienced for as long as I could remember. People certainly were willing to pay to own games. That had long since been proven despite ongoing piracy faced by accessible game developers. I didn't think too many blind people would be willing to continue forking over even a little cash month after month just to keep playing a game. A company putting out games based on that income method wouldn't last six months, I had thought. Thanks to being gloriously wrong in my assessment, this weekend wasn't the long boring stretch of time it would otherwise have been.
Despite hearing all of my companions via the same synthetic voice, conversation had been interesting and friendly. I had become acquainted with a minister in Texas, the cousin of a blinded veteran waiting to play with him, a teenager from New York about to head off to university, and a couple of housewives who had met through the All inPlay games years before and had become fast friends. All of them had been eager to participate in the event launching this exciting new game. You never knew what cards would turn up nor what sort of people would drop in to participate. I had spent a very pleasant and stimulating Friday evening attending this free tournament held by
to launch their latest creation. It was open to everyone. This included sighted people since that was part of the company's success. They had built inclusive games in order to attract sighted people who might want to play with their blind acquaintances. The interest this game had generated staggered me. The virtual tables were near full most of the time. It was Saturday afternoon and I had begun to hanker for more card action and less talk. Accordingly, I had joined a high-stakes fast table for the first time.
Two kings were what I had to work with. Nobody made any aggressive moves during the first round but neither did anybody fold. The flop came down and included two kings. This was terrific as it gave me a hand of four of a kind. It didn't get much better than that. The next round was more lively as everyone made fairly substantial raises. However, my faith in the four of a kind hand I held remained unshaken. The pot was now quite sizeable. With eight players raising substantially above what was required to remain in the game, whoever came out on top would already find him or herself well ahead in an attempt to win the tournament. The next card was revealed as an ace. That didn't do anything for me but clearly did for others. People began to raise the absolute maximum allowed. Eight of us were at the table so things took on gigantic proportions very quickly. Before I knew what was happening, I was in way over my head. The rush was incredible as everyone found themselves in an essential life or death struggle for chips.
I was balanced precariously on a knife-edge of luck and there was no ducking out now. I was in all the way. It was absolutely exhilarating. Considering that no actual money was involved and all the chips were merely a digital representation of nothing more valuable than a sense of pride in one's skill as a gambler, I wouldn't have thought I could care as much whether I won or lost. I remember reflecting on how true that saying was about not knowing what one had until it was gone. Now that it was completely out of my control, it suddenly mattered greatly that I be able to continue playing in the tournament. How could I lose with four of a kind and four kings to boot? At last, the final card was revealed to be a queen. Everyone went through another round of raising. I couldn't raise any more since all I had was already put into the pot. However, I would still win a tremendous amount if I were victorious. How could I lose with four kings? The answer was as simple as it was devastating. That ace had let somebody get a royal flush which clobbered my four kings. In the blink of an ear, I was out of the tournament. No real money is used by players of All inPlay. Once you've paid your subscription, it's all a matter of pride. That was ultimately all I had just lost.
While I edited my magazine, one of the most frequent questions I had been asked was whether there were any accessible racing games. For quite a while, I had to answer that none were available. Over time, a couple of more arcade-style racing games did emerge. Mach 3, produced and given freely away by Jim Kitchen, achieved a very high level of popularity. The enemy cars were just obstacles on the tracks and didn't try to out-race players. However, there were actual tournament races held via email with everyone sending in their results to a person tasked with being the judge. It was a fairly clunky way of handling things and people began to wonder whether anybody would come out with a game which would let people race each other online. I figured if anybody was going to do that, it would be one of the commercially motivated people running an actual business wanting to make a profit. The demand for it was so obviously present. However, the first such game produced was done by a group of enthusiasts in Europe who gave the game away for free to the delight of all.
I have no idea whether we had any sighted people join our list in the heyday of this game's popularity. Hopefully, seeing all the messages from excited blind online racers about negotiating hairpin turns at full speed, the difficulty controlling motor cycles, various cars and how they handled in adverse conditions, and trying to force opponents to smash into the side of the track didn't alarm anybody too greatly. It certainly made for a surreal experience for me. Actually setting up games involving more than a couple of human players was an exercise in coordination and you had to know a little about computer security if you were running the game behind a firewall or router. Despite those inhibitions, many people would post information about the servers they were running in hopes of having people drop in and participate. These days, it's harder to find servers for a game. However, you'll still occasionally come across discussion of Topspeed 2 from time to time. Another version is apparently being worked on at the time of this guide's publication in 2008. Assuming they can make it easier to find and hook up with potential fellow racers, this game has very high prospects to be another smash hit. You can check out the current Topspeed 2 game at:
There are a number of online games accessible to blind people. Many like those offered by All inPlay have been designed specifically to be accessible. Things are getting off to a slow start in terms of online multi-player experiences as developers are just beginning to seriously explore what can be done in this area. However, this is not the case in the sighted world. Some of the multi-player text-based games have been accessible to the blind for a couple of decades. Many of these are known as multi-user dungeons or simply "muds". If you're looking for advice on how to approach these, I'm afraid I have none to offer you. Being an English major as well as someone fascinated by random chance, I know better than to expose myself to such a potentially powerful addiction. Were I ever to stumble into a mud I actually liked, people might not see much of me. For those of stronger courage, I refer you to the earlier issues of Audyssey Magazine where you'll find some articles and reviews written by experienced blind players of these games. To get you started though, check out a new accessible program for playing these muds. It's called Vipmud and can be obtained from:
You can also go to:
Still other games online are what are known as "browser-based" games. You simply need an accessible web browser to play these games. They are a fabulous way to gain proficiency using interactive elements of web sites such as buttons, combo boxes, edit fields and the like. One such game is:
It is actually a single-player fantasy game. Its creator has gone to great lengths to make his textual world accessible to blind players. I can't think of a better and more engaging game for novices to learn Internet skills by playing. Much of the game is available for free. Certainly, there is enough there to let novices become veterans of Internet elements. For a very reasonable fee, far more adventures and other perks are made available to players who find that they like the game and wish to contribute.
If you're looking for a more extensive list of accessible online games, check out the one hosted at Tom Lorimer's site. Go to:
and you can find quite an extensive list of online games known to be accessible to the blind. Chances are that there will be something out there of interest to you.
10-- Looking For Accessible Software
There is a tremendous lot of software out on the Internet. Much of it is absolutely free for people to download and use. If you find something which is designated as freeware, that means that you are free to download, share and use it to your heart's content. There are absolutely no costs nore strings attached. This guide is released in that same spirit. The only thing that I or most freeware creators would object to is if somebody modified what they had done or simply released it and took credit themselves for creating the freeware.
Other software is called "shareware". Users may freely download and try out the software but must purchase a full version to continue using it after the demonstration expires or to unlock the software's full potential. In many instances, this free or low-cost software will be completely adequate or even better suited to an individual's needs than the higher-priced commercial offerings. There's a persistent myth that it's pointless to try any of this software out since it likely won't be accessible. There's certainly a grain of truth to that. Sight is the world's predominant sense and much of this software is designed with graphical attractiveness which makes it impossible for people using access technology to take advantage of. Anybody who decides to look outside the box for accessible freeware or shareware is in for many disappointments. You'll install many programs, work with them for a while trying to see if there's any way at all of making it work for you and then come to the inescapable conclusion that it was a hopeless cause from the start. However, more often than not, efforts along these lines can eventually prove quite spectacularly rewarding. Here are three good examples of what I mean:
I wanted a personal calendar for my computer. The access technology people all seem to be focused on making Microsoft Outlook's calendar accessible. That's all well and good for a lot of people but I didn't want to have to use Microsoft Outlook. I am perfectly content with Outlook Express for my personal email needs and wanted a completely separate calendar program. Google is my search tool of choice and I began entering keywords into it in hopes of striking gold. I started with "blind, calendar, windows, software, free". A bit on the lengthy side of searches and too specific to produce anything worth-while as it turned out. There just didn't seem to be anything written specifically to be accessible for blind people.
Taking a different tack, I decided to look for free personal calendar software for Windows. One of the more promising early finds was a free program called Sunbird. It was somewhat problematic even for a veteran like myself to make use of and I certainly couldn't have recommended it to novice users. It was workable but not without a lot of frustration. Pressing onward in my search, I came to Eurosoft's free program Calendar Magic. Having tried and discarded somewhere around ten other free calendar programs, I ran it expecting more of the same bad luck to continue. However, I found that one feature after another proved to be fully accessible without any effort at all. The software contained far more than a mere calendar. It had many different calculators, measurement conversions, and many other utilities. Most information and results were displayed in edit fields allowing for easy reading via the arrow keys. Things were accessed using standard Windows-style menus, checkboxes, radio buttons etc. You can learn more about this extraordinary find at:
Here's another example. I was a happy user of Microsoft Word for quite some time. However, I couldn't afford to keep it updated. When I installed my version of Microsoft OfficeXP onto my latest desktop computer, I found that Microsoft Word wouldn't work for me anymore. It wouldn't stay open even long enough for me to accept the license. There is also the issue of how long Microsoft Word can take to open when you need it. I figured there had to be a free word processor out there with a spell checker and a status line which would work well with screen readers. A few free text editors have been designed for blind people. Edsharp and Text pal are two examples. However, neither of these has a status line which will inform you of what page, line and column you're on. They had all sorts of other features but didn't have the basic feature I needed. Continuing my search on Google, I tried a number of free word processors for sighted people. A few were completely inaccessible. A more promising early find was Ruff Draft. This one would certainly do in a pinch. However, I was completely astounded by a program called Jarte.
Jarte is a free word processor which makes use of the engine which Microsoft used to build Word pad. However, it had added many features to this completely accessible free offering such as the status line I wanted. The author even has a screen reader detection feature which removed the more visual elements. It doesn't get any better than this. Jarte opens up very quickly when I need it. No more than half a second after I hit the shortcut key I've created for it, Jarte is open and ready for work. Far less loaded with features than Microsoft Word, I believe Jarte has those features which average users will need for their personal writing. I'd far sooner have new users start with it rather than Word. Jarte would have done fine had I used it during my university career. It is robust without being over-bloated with features most people are rarely if ever going to need. You can find this excellent free word processor at:
Choosing the right keywords while using search engines like Google to look for freeware or low-cost shareware can make all the difference. Think carefully about what you hope to find. Separate keywords with commas and a space. For example, you might search for"
blind, music player, software, free
if you were interested in alternative free software to use to play digital music such as mp3 files. In an ideal world, you would find software which is known to be accessible to blind people using access technology. As we make our presence known to authors of software online, we should see that kind of thing happen more often. However, in many cases, you'll have to just look for what you're after without specifying accessibility. For example, you might try:
free, word processor, simple
This would possibly result in you finding programs like Jarte.
Sometimes, you'll discover programs which are very close to being accessible or which you feel could be made accessible. If this happens, try contacting the author of the software with your thoughts. My experience with this has been quite good. I have actually had a lot of success in getting them to make changes to improve accessibility. Once these authors are aware of interest in their work from blind people, they are usually eager to make their software more accessible. The search queries I've offered as examples here are of the most basic kind. Search engines like Google are very powerful and have many advanced options and ways of telling them what you are and are not looking for. You'll find plenty of help and information about how to make the best use of search engines right on their sites.
While it's a shame that so much software is rendered inaccessible to us due to aesthetics, it is even more of a shame that perfectly useable software goes unknown about by blind people for never having been tried. I hope that the examples of my own success in this area given above will inspire more blind people to invest some time in searching for freeware or shareware relevant to their personal interests. There are doubtless many more discoveries to be made and shared. If you strike gold in your explorations, be certain that you spread the word. Money is very tight for many blind people and knowing about free or low-cost alternatives can make a tremendous difference. There is no central clearing house for this kind of thing. However, in the section called "Getting Online", I provided a number of links to some of the more popular sites set up for blind people. Another place to give and receive information about new software finds is at:
This pod cast is quite well known and is there for people to share all kinds of their experiences via audio recordings. If you're not up to doing those, you may want to look at:
There, you'll find a resource called "top tech tidbits". This is a newsletter posted online and emailed to interested people. They welcome information about accessible software to be passed along in upcoming issues published weekly.
11-- Free Speech Access
There are many instances where it could be very helpful to have access to free screen readers. Some people simply can't afford the numerous commercially available alternatives. Perhaps, you'll need to access the Internet or use somebody else's computer and can't make use of your regular speech access. You may want to get your feet wet in this whole digital ocean without spending the big bucks first and not like the idea of using one of the demonstration copies of commercial software. These tend to run for a fixed amount of time and then stop working until you reset your computer for another period of time to be made available. This is a fairly common practise as it allows people to get a sense of what the full product can do for them without essentially giving them that full product. Totally free screen readers don't put you in such an uncomfortable position. You can take as long as you like and don't have to worry that your computer will suddenly stop talking due to an arbitrary timer.
For those of us fortunate enough to have commercial speech software at our command, consider this. Even the best software will occasionally lock up or stop speaking for no apparent reason. When that happens, it's very nice indeed to be able to call up one of the free screen readers for a bit of emergency duty. There are also occasions when you may need to access a different computer. Often, commercial packages will naturally be protected by security which deters people from installing it on more than a couple of computers. There are no such restrictions when you're using the free screen-reading alternatives. The only major drawbacks are software quality and not having access to as rapid technical support if you need it. All of the producers of the free screen readers are eager for feedback. However, they may have very different priorities and your particular issue may not be deemed very urgent in the grand scheme of things.
For Windows users, three current initiatives to produce free speech access to computers have attracted a fairly high level of attention. These are named Thunder, NVDA, and System Access To Go. Each of them approaches things a little differently. All of them are produced by conscientious people who want to try to erase the digital divide faced by less fortunate members of the blind community. For all three projects, there is enough work already done to make them useful but a lot of development still ongoing. If you make use of one or more of them, keep watch on their respective web sites for any updates which might come along at any time.
Let's start with Thunder. It was the first of these projects to attract my attention. The group producing Thunder have the overall goal of bringing basic access to word processing, the Internet and the Windows operating system. They don't claim that it will work well with all programs. How versatile Thunder eventually becomes depends on the funding they receive and what the community of users does with it. Thunder is open-source software. It comes bundled with companion software which lets you use the Internet, listen to Pod casts, tune into radio stations broadcasting over the Internet, and other things. A lot of help files have been made available for it and Thunder's manual is a very easy read. One excellent feature Thunder has is a system that constantly watches for errors which would stop speech output. When one happens, Thunder will likely correct the problem given a moment's patience and be back talking again without the user having to do anything. Overall, I believe Thunder would make a good place to start in order to begin to gain familiarity with computers. Over time, I would expect the limitations of Thunder to begin to confine people who want to go much beyond the basics. You can obtain Thunder free of charge at:
NVDA, which stands for "Non-visual Desktop Access", is an attempt to produce a full free open-source screen reader. This attempt is off to an absolutely splendid start. In general, NVDA does at least an adequate job of accessing most things. There are certainly still issues, bugs and problems to work out. NVDA will also work with Internet Explorer and Firefox. Unlike Thunder, you won't have to use a more specialized web browser. While Thunder is kept intentionally extremely simplified, NVDA offers a great deal more flex ability for people whose personal interests might require it. Novices should find NVDA another very good starting option which will provide somewhat more room to expand than Thunder. The learning curve is just a little steeper. You can obtain NVDA by going to:
The third option has appeared on the scene most recently but has paradoxically been in development the longest. It's actually a variant of a commercial screen reader called System Access developed by a corporation called Serotek. This corporation's overall slant leans far more towards personal use and enjoyment of accessible computers than other major access technology companies. They have a lot to offer even users of other screen readers. Check them out at:
Recently, Serotek created a non-profit foundation called AIR, Accessibility Is a Right. This foundation makes Serotek's System Access To Go screen reader available free of charge to anyone with a stable Internet connection. It is by far the best free screen reader currently available in terms of robust features and ease of use. Extensive help is available. Any settings people prefer can be saved on a server which is constantly connected to the Internet. You can go to any computer with Internet access, be talked through starting up the screen reader and then use your account and pin numbers to have your preferences go into effect on that computer. System access to go will work with both the Internet and with applications running on the local computer you're on.
Whatever you do though, don't close the window of the browser you used to start the speech. Believe me. It's quite easy to do by accident while trying to close other applications or windows you want to get rid of. Leave that browser window used to launch the screen reader open no matter what. You see, there's a heck of a catch to this free ride. If that browser is closed or if the connection to the Internet is lost even for an instant, so is your speech access. You will be told that System Access is shutting down and those will be the last words you hear. To restore speech access, you'll have to go to the web site and reactivate System Access To Go before continuing whatever you were doing before suddenly losing speech. That can be most annoying while you're in the middle of doing stuff. This is my only concern with recommending System Access to Go for novices. They may not be able to open and use a web browser unassisted for the first while. One approach to this is to obtain another free screen reader and have it ready to be easily activated. Either memorize how to get to the icon which launches that screen reader or make a shortcut to it with a hotkey which you can enter. For instance, I've got NVDA installed on my system so that hitting the control alt n key combination activates it when I need speech and Jaws has conked out on me. To use System Access to Go, go to:
You will be given all the instructions you need when you go there as long as you're running a computer with sound capability and the volume is at a reasonable level. After you close down speech or it is shut down due to a poor Internet connection, no trace of the software will be left on the computer. You'll have to go to the site again to get it all up and running the next time you need it. Another possible benefit for some people will be the free screen magnification capabilities built into the software.
For souls far braver than I, there are the Linux and Apple Mac options. I've had absolutely no experience with these. However, I will direct you to where you can learn more about these choices. To learn about Voiceover, the screen reader built right into Apple's Tiger and Leopard operating systems, go to:
Linux has also gained some popularity among blind users. There are a growing number of accessible programs which can be used. One tremendous advantage is in affordability. Linux itself is absolutely free as are the screen readers which are available for it. Due to the number of different speech access alternatives for Linux, I will simply recommend that you make use of a search engine on the Internet. Type in something like "Linux, blind users", or "Linux, screen reader", and you'll find useful information in very short order. One alternative growing in popularity is called Orca. You can check it out at:
12-- Personal Reflections:
Congratulations, reader. Assuming you've read through the guide to this point, you've learned all it can teach you about computers and the online world. Take some time to think about all you've learned and what you might want to achieve with that knowledge. All that remains is to reflect on the road we've travelled together. I eagerly await hearing about or interacting with the results of your own online journeys to come. Meanwhile, for the curious, here are my own reflections at the end of this journey:
Two years ago, I sat eating at a table in the dining hall of the Lake Joseph Centre where I was on vacation. I had struck gold that evening both with the food served as well as the company with whom I enjoyed it. I casually mentioned that I often listened to the radio dramas presented by the BBC which they made available for anyone to hear online. An older lady originally from Britain was astonished to learn how simple it would be for her to do that. She had missed hearing a show called The Archers. The BBC makes an astonishing amount of excellent documentaries, comedies, news and more available freely to everyone. My ex wife and I had discovered this at some point by sheer accident while bored one day. I gave a few more examples of the audio entertainment and mind-expanding stuff I had found over the years. That morning, I had tuned into NASA TV online to catch live coverage of the space shuttle landing. I had also just downloaded a new and apparently free screen reader called Thunder which I had yet to experiment with very much. Accessible games, online shopping, and other topics I've touched on in this guide also came up that night as we ate.
Things were drawing to a close when somebody suggested that I would do the blind community a great service if I would help make other blind people aware of these opportunities by writing down my personal online journey. The rest of the table agreed. Before the week was done, over twenty other people had put in their specific requests for this project. That's how this journey started. It's been a very rewarding process for me. In an effort to share what wisdom I had found, I learned quite a few new things. Additionally, I've found some very interesting new friends and had many stimulating conversations along the way. Having this guide's completion as a goal to strive for kept me anchored when the rest of my life went through drastic rather painful change.
Halfway through writing the guide, I returned to Lake Joseph with what I had done so far and let some visitors there hear parts of it. They liked what they heard but wanted more basic information to be included. I had wrongly assumed that people would have been taught the basics of Windows or would know how to find out what they didn't know. For many of the people I met that year, the rest of my work would be utterly useless to them since what training they had received was too overwhelming for them to absorb. They had no idea what the start menu was or the desktop. I was somewhat horrified at that and set out to include enough of this basic information to get people going. You have to be able to find your way around the box in order to start thinking outside of it.
How to give people the information needed while still honouring my original goal of bringing a level of personal interest and liveliness to the experience has proved quite a challenge for me. A document simply can't replace having living friends who can share the learning experience with you. However, I hope that I've at least given you the motivation and means to help find those friends. Immediate personal motivation is what I feel the blind community has truly lacked when it comes to using accessible computers. The current generation of sighted adults grew up with computers being their buddies. They learned a whole lot about the technology they work with today by simply having fun with it. For them, it wasn't about learning how to work with computers. That was simply incidental. Just like I learned how to type around 90 words per minute by playing text adventures, they grew comfortable with technology in a similarly more playful way. When we're having fun and personally interested in something, our passion will carry us farther than the best instructions or teaching will. It's that simple. If my guide has made you think: "Wow! I could have a lot of fun with this stuff!", then I've succeeded in my quest.
There is so much room out there for us to participate and contribute. All of the jargon and techno speak can be a bit hard to absorb at first. However, once you're moving in the traffic on the information superhighway, I suspect you might well be amazed how ultimately human that online world is. We're not all a bunch of ultrageeks and technical wizards. Quite the opposite in fact. You'll find everyone from students to retirees, gamers to gardeners, concerned parents to techno-savvy businessmen on the Internet. They're all in pursuit of goals as old as time itself. Information, romance, stimulating conversation, amusement, understanding, money, fame... All of these are available with the right knowledge, time, resources and effort. The Internet gives us all a place where we can speak and be heard. That, I believe, is its greatest gift to blind people the world over. If I've managed to convince even a small number of you to step up and make your presence known online, then I've accomplished what I've set out to do.
It isn't all pretty. The Internet certainly has its dark side. Criminals have quickly moved into this territory as well. That's why I took such pains to illustrate what can happen if people don't take precautions while online. There's another side to this too. Unlike the physical world, there are no hard and fast barriers preventing blind people from engaging in criminal activity. They aren't placed at such an extreme disadvantage as they would be in a world where everyone else can see what they are doing. Sometimes, I can't help thinking that it won't be too long at all before I hear some news story about a frustrated blind person who decides to commit a major Internet crime. The overall societal conditions are certainly present for that to happen. There are an awful lot of us with plenty of time and talent on our hands who find it impossible to obtain honest work despite sincere sustained effort. While I was growing up, everyone was very optimistic that this new accessible information age we were advancing into would be a great equalizer for blind people. Sadly, I think we've ultimately been somewhat disillusioned of that. Technology in and of itself is just a tool. Overall attitudes about blind people need to change drastically in western society before we'll see a meaningful reduction in unemployment. Also, as that happens, the attitudes of us blind people must also change becoming more open to new possibilities offered. It's a very large chicken and egg problem which I believe will take a long time to solve. Adding to it is the total lack of job security out there for anybody whether they're blind or sighted.
What Internet access does for us is to open up a sphere where we can more easily present ourselves and participate. It also lets blind people across the planet talk directly to each other as well as sighted people breaking down the isolation many of us experience. The younger generation of blind people will, I think, not experience the same profound lack of awareness of the exciting possibilities technology offers us which my generation and the one preceding it has. They'll know about the forums for discussion, sources of information, accessible games, free software, etc. Their friends and family will be more apt to bring them early into the digital age. If I were to go forward in time twenty years, I don't believe I would experience the same lack of knowledge which prompted me to write this guide. It's a temporary problem whose solution I hope I've managed to help speed up much as others have helped me. In time, we'll reach a point where our online presence will start to make a much larger difference to our offline prospects. People will come face to face with who we are and what we're capable of on their and our own terms. They'll know us for the individual people we are rather than thinking of us collectively as "blind people". It'll take time and effort but ultimately, we'll get there.
When I'm given a gift, I naturally have an urge to enjoy it as much as I can. At the same time, I have a strong compulsion to share that gift with others. Encountering so many people who couldn't do what I've been able to over the years made me profoundly aware of just how fortunate a man I am in so many ways. My life is full of many wonderful friends and a very supportive family. I felt absolutely compelled to do something that would give people a fighting chance to find some of the life satisfaction I had achieved and largely taken for granted. At last, I believe I've done this to the best of my ability. I've found the redemption I hoped to find through this project and can now explore other things without a sense that I've neglected my duty.
Basically, I see this guide as a finished thing. I have no inclination or plans to produce an improved version some time in the future. I've done what my conscience and sense of fairness has compelled me to do in this area. There are other creative frontiers which beckon me onward. Should anybody want me to personally attend or speak to groups of people about topics I've covered in this guide, I would be happy to do so either online or off as long as transportation and scheduling arrangements can be made. I've had some opportunities in the past to do this sort of thing and have been well received so far. While I've worked on this guide, I've put other projects on the slow burner. I plan to spend the Summer months of 2008 recharging my creative engine and doing what I can to spread the guide as widely as possible. I'll also keep myself available for any opportunities which having published this guide might present me with. In my experience, attempting to do good tends to present one with interesting and rewarding opportunities to do still more. God seems to work like that. Assuming nothing sweeps me into it by the Autumn, I'll move on to a very different, ambitious and creative project whose planning is already well underway.
All of us have knowledge, creativity, enthusiasm and talent we can share. In a very real sense, that has become my vocation in life. Following that calling has taken me to some interesting experiences and places. Over and above the possibilities and the knowledge I've shared here, I hope to have given you a sense of why it matters that we step forward and be a positive part of the information age even if that doesn't lead to material reward. If more of us do this, I believe it will greatly speed up that change of attitudes we need to see in overall society. The online world is so much a part of conversation these days. People turn to Google or some other online resource to find out about all sorts of things. Searching for games accessible to blind people will certainly bring you to the magazine I started as well as other things I've written in the past. Because I thought to put a profile about me online and enter the social networking scene, I'm not in the social limbo I felt plunged into when my marriage ended. A very special woman read that profile and liked it enough to add it to her favourites list. I was alerted to that and the rest has been very happy history. What knowledge might you have to offer the online world? You never know what your efforts could eventually lead to once you've engaged with it. I'm not saying you'll always strike gold or that everything will be roses and light. It certainly hasn't been for me. Ultimately, what I'm trying to say is that the online world is a place very much worth taking the time to engage with. Best of luck to all my readers. Perhaps, I'll hear from some of you eventually. I'd like that very much. Thank you for your time and attention.
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada