Hearing Graphics for the First Time

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by Joseph J. Lazzaro

“Reprint Courtesy of International Business Machines Corporation, © International Business Machines Corporation”

As computers become more graphically oriented with each new product release, vendors must forge tools so that blind people can access image-intensive systems. Screen Reader/PM may be the instrument with which visually impaired and learning-disabled people gain equal access to the GUI.

As a computer user who is blind and responsible for adapting job sites for a state and federally funded computer access project, I have tested nearly every screen-reader system (SRD) on virtually every text-based computer platform. Until now, most systems have been mute in graphical environments (see "Windows of Vulnerability," June BYTE).

But new technology has surfaced that may help the visually impaired and learning disabled to operate in a GUI-oriented world. Screen Reader/PM from IBM is a breakthrough speech package. The company sent me a system and gave me the chance to check out a beta version of the software.

I evaluated Screen Reader/PM's capabilities using an IBM PS/2 Model 70 equipped with 4 MB of memory, a 70-MB hard drive, and an Accent stand- alone voice synthesizer from Aicom (San Jose, CA). Screen Reader/PM also works with other synthesizers on the market, so you can choose the voice unit that best suits the application at hand.

Installation is relatively easy. It involves copying the speech software to an appropriate subdirectory and rewriting the CONFIG.SYS and STARTUP .CMD files. I had to connect the voice synthesizer to one of the serial communications ports-a trivial job, to say the least.

Screen Reader/PM comes bundled with a small keyboard, about the size of a numeric keypad. This keyboard plugs into the mouse port on any PS/2 computer and lets you control all aspects of the SRD. There are keys for reading lines, words, and characters, as well as commands for reading entire windows. Once I completed the installation, I cranked up the software, which gave a voice to OS/2 and Presentation Manager.

When the synthesizer came to life, I was amazed to find that, for the first time, I could actually use an IBM-based graphics-based system. As I moved the arrow keys, the synthesizer crisply verbalized each highlighted menu selection. I found Screen Reader/PM to be quite responsive, with little or no lag time between keystrokes and verbalizations. This is very important for a speech program, as a sluggish package would slow down productivity.

When I began further exploring the external keyboard, I discovered a dedicated help key that gave me verbal verification of every key in the system. This keyboard has both positive and negative implications. It prevents conflicts with applications that seize control of the main keyboard, an occasional problem with terminal-emulation hardware and software. But blind users who are more comfortable keeping their hands firmly fixed on the home row to control voice functions may at first find the use of a secondary control board slow and painful. I was pleased to find that you can bypass this external keyboard and use the numeric keypad on the main keyboard if you wish; this is a feature that will satisfy a wide range of speech users.

All in all, I found the system fast and responsive, although there are a few rough edges in the current beta version. This is to be expected, especially when you consider that Screen Reader/PM is the first graphics-based speech package for the family of IBM computer platforms.

The program lives up to its claims -- to allow blind people equal access to the OS/2 and Presentation Manager GUI, as well as to a host of programs running under OS/2. Screen Reader/PM may also help learning-disabled users who have difficulties with graphical representations of text.

According to IBM, OS/2 2.0 will be able to run Windows applications; this may eventually give blind and learning-disabled people access to that graphics-based environment. I think Screen Reader/PM will evolve into a stable and highly reliable access package, one that will provide many disabled users with the freedom the coming of the GUI almost took away.