By David Bates
There is now increasing emphasis on enabling more of the older and poorer members of the community to use computers to access information and to communicate with others. I see the primary need for non-computer-literate older people to be an inexpensive ‘net book’ with a very simple and easily-learned interface which will enable them to undertake basic tasks. But from where can such machines be purchased with suitable, simple software installed?
Like a new driver, learners are easily put off by technicalities – they just want to move forward by operating the controls without learning what goes on under the bonnet. This problem is especially acute for blind computer users, who have to control the machine in an unusual way: because they cannot read the text or see the cursor they must move it around the screen with the Alt, arrow and Tab keys, and then listen to the words under the cursor as they are read out with a synthetic voice. The link they require may be very visible on the screen, but it may well take the carefully listening user many keystrokes to locate it.
Many blind users consider themselves tied to Microsoft programmes and to Freedom Scientific, the company which makes the popular JAWS screenreader software which is optimised to read these programmes. These two brand leaders provide a first-class, premium-priced service for blind people in paid employment, but their sales policies largely exclude the needs of the great majority of blind people who are unemployed or retired.
Since my retirement I have continued to use Microsoft XP, Office 97, Outlook Express and JAWS, while working for two charitable organisations. However, I recently had to buy a new computer which came with Windows 7 and Office 2007 because the older programmes have been withdrawn.
Without the traditional fixed menus, the new programmes are much more difficult to use with a screenreader. To allow me to continue my work, Microsoft has therefore forced me to undertake a considerable and unnecessary learning curve, and they have also charged me for the privilege of doing this!
However, the crowning insult was that the JAWS upgrade needed to access these programmes would have cost me £330 ($500), which would have meant that the new unnecessary software programmes would have cost more than the computer itself. You need to be rich to be blind!
I have decided that if I must go through future learning curves I will move to open source programmes which are regularly updated for free and which will remain available. I have therefore replaced JAWS with NVDA ( www.nvda-project.org ), a free screenreader which is easy to learn and works as well as JAWS. My email client is now Mozilla Thunderbird, with Firefox replacing Internet Explorer, and I am now checking a free office programme so that I can get away from Microsoft Word with its less accessible ribbon menus.
Replacing the Windows operating system will need more care, but there are several free Linux operating systems out there whose developers could hopefully produce a simple desktop interface which will work with their vast assortment of free programmes, which, surprisingly, also includes a screenreader.
Blind people mostly have incomes well below the average, and government cuts are likely to reduce these still further, while also increasing the rate of unemployment among the blind to above the present level of around 65%.
The open source community should be encouraged to adapt and supply their software to this low cost market, thereby providing enormous benefits to both older and disabled members of the community, a market which appears to be outside the financial scope of both Microsoft and Freedom Scientific.
Note: David Bates is a member of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) UK Executive ( www.nfbuk.org ).
This article is the personal opinion of the writer, and does not necessarily represent the views of E-Access Bulletin or Headstar. To respond please email: firstname.lastname@example.org