"How on earth are you supposed to use a computer when you're blind?" is a question I've been asked many a time. In this article, I'll try to describe in as much detail as I can how blind people use computers. Think of this as a sequel to A Guide to Playing Video Games Without Sight.
A screen reader is just what it sounds like. It is a piece of software that allows on-screen content to be presented in a way that is more accessible to a blind user. This is done in many ways, such as speaking the output aloud in a synthesized computer voice, providing audio cues such as beeps and clicks to indicate different types of content on the screen, and tactile feedback in the form of braille dots.
There are many different screen readers for many different software platforms. Some examples include, but are not limited to:
Keyboard shortcuts are good for sighted and blind computer users alike. They allow you to perform actions that would otherwise take much longer to perform using the mouse. They are extremely useful for blind users however, as it is very hard, if not impossible, for us to use the mouse.
I wrote a list of 10 Powerful Keyboard Shortcuts Everyone Should Know. That article mainly covers Windows shortcuts, however there are many different shortcuts for many different systems.
Shortcuts allow blind users to do a whole lot of things, such as opening the start menu, moving files from one location to another, copying and pasting text, and even moving and clicking the mouse in certain screen reader specific cases! Most operating system shortcuts involve the Control (Command on Mac), Alt (Option on Mac), Windows and Shift keys. These keys are known as modifier keys because when held down, they modify the function of other keys. For example, pressing the e key on its own will just type the letter e, however holding down the Windows key and pressing e will open up the File Explorer on Windows 8 and 10, or Windows Explorer on previous versions of Windows. Holding down the Shift key and pressing e will type a capital E.
Some screen readers, such as JAWS and NVDA, come with their own shortcuts for content reading and manipulation. For example, you can press the letter H to navigate downwards through document headings in NVDA, and shift + H to navigate upwards. Why not try it on this web page! Of course, the content the user is trying to work with must be designed to support these shortcuts. Otherwise, they might have to resort to just using the arrow keys or whatever object navigation keys their reader has. Object navigation keys are often preceded with a modifier key such as Capslock and/or Shift, and allow screen reader users to zero in on items on the screen and locate things that would often be missed with just the Tab or arrow keys alone.
Touch typing is just what it sounds like. Typing by touch, without having to look at the keyboard. Advanced touch typers can usually type at high speeds without any braille or audio feedback. For those learning to touch type, there is software out there including TypeAbility that provide touch typing lessons through both sound and speech. These lessons include:
Alt text simply refers to a label that is placed with a picture. When a user locates an image on a web page or other document, their screen reader will read this alt text. It is important that the alt text contains a clear, concise description of the image, not just a random bunch of numbers and letters that some online images tend to have. Social media sites, such as Twitter, now allow users who attach pictures to their tweets to describe them with alt text. Sadly, however, this feature is not used as much as it should be, leaving users with no choice but to ask someone else to describe the image for them or use a smartphone app like Seeing AI to try to make sense of it.
OCR (Optical Character Recognition) is a technology that allows for the extraction of text from images or other on-screen elements that are otherwise invisible to a screen reader. OCR is not perfect, and some problems can come up as a result of using it, such as text getting jumbled up or missing certain characters. However, it's important to note that OCR is quite a new concept and is still in its infancy.
Recent versions of MacOS allow blind users to use a program called VOCR which uses the built-in VoiceOver screen reader to read on-screen contents using OCR technology. It can even have the mouse pointer move to an on-screen item whilst it is being read, and supports performing a mouse click on said item with the keyboard! Other readers, such as the afore mentioned JAWS and NVDA, have OCR features built into the reader and therefore don't require the user to set up another program.
Unfortunately, there are cases where none of the 4 items mentioned above are available. No screen readers, no alternative text, no OCR, nothing! In these cases, sighted assistance must be offered to the user.
A good example of this is when a user has to navigate screens outside of the computers operating system, such as BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) or boot menu screens. The sighted helper must provide clear instructions on how to navigate these screens. Examples include:
If nobody is available to physically be there with a user at a given time, a free app called Be My Eyes can be used for distance assistance. Be My Eyes is a free app that allows blind users to place a call for help, answered by one of many sighted volunteers. As soon as a volunteer answers the call, they are able to assist the user with a given task through video chat. Be My Eyes even offers specialized support for specific issues, such as accessing a PC's BIOS or dealing with an inaccessible program. Specialized support is offered by many big companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and the bank of Scotland.
There are smartphone apps out there, such as the above mentioned Seeing AI, that allow users without eyesight to have the world around them described through speech and sound. The user simply points their phone's camera at their computer screen or something else that is near them, and the app will describe to them what item they're looking at. Seeing AI can read anything from short text labels to entire documents! It can even detect how much light is in a room by playing a constant sine sound wave. The higher the pitch of this sound, the more light there is in the room. The user can also load image files from their device into the app and have it scan the picture for text and/or other objects (tables, chairs, shelves, books, stickers, etc).
I hope this guide has helped you understand a bit more how those without sight, such as myself, get the most out of their computers. Whether you're blind or sighted, a computer is a great and powerful thing.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Computers Are Life!