Yo, Human! The Mystical Screen Reader: Accessing Life with Adaptive Technology

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

A Screen Reader, what's that?

The room around me is dim and stifling as I set the large rectangular object gently on the wobbly table. The thick, musky scent of incense assaults my nostrils almost making me sneeze, but then I don't. An ancient, heavy-set woman leans forward over the table, gazing intently at the window screen. Her bushy eyebrows flex as she states, "I see many things in your future."

Errrrt! (sounds of brakes slamming.) Wait a minute, thats definitely not it!

Several times I have heard the question, "If you're blind, how can you use a computer?" It is a legitimate question and something I personally learned myself just a few short years ago. Additionally, I recently had the pleasure of dealing with several large government agencies whose ill-trained front-end people had no idea how to interact with a blind caller, and had no concept of a screen reader. It was a frustrating experience on both sides I'm sure. Hence, this article is intended as a writing from both a visual and non-visual view. It attempts to describe the idea of a screen reader in general. First, let's back up one step and briefly look at the Mac screen itself. Some of this might seem obvious, but it should give us some common ground.

The Screen Itself: In it's original clean state the Mac screen is a large rectangle, wide - not tall, with a picture or color that fills the screen.

The Top: Across the very top is a small bar no taller than your fingernail, that spans the entire screen from left to right. This is the Menu Bar, it is the top-most object. The left side of the Menu Bar has a collection of words, the right side a collection of symbols. All of these become drop-down menus when clicked, giving you more options to select.

The Middle: The whole center area known as the Desktop, is for you to customize with various settings. This is where app and desktop windows will appear. Hard drives, external drives and connected servers can also be shown here while they are connected. You can save and manage your own files here as well. There are no objects on the sides unless you put them there yourself.

The Bottom: A larger bar that does not span the entire width sits on the very bottom of the screen, called the Dock. It contains many shortcuts to the preinstalled apps on your Mac. It can be customized by adding shortcuts to your own apps and folders. You can also move shortcuts to new positions on the Dock.

Generally you would navigate these items by moving a small pointy arrow, known as the mouse cursor, over the object and clicking a button on the mouse or trackpad, selecting the item. If you click once on a word on the left side of the Menu Bar, a drop-down menu will appear. Likewise, clicking once on a shortcut in the Dock will launch the app or open the item. Additionally, double-clicking an item on the Desktop will launch or open the item as well. One thing that all items on the screen have in common; clicking it once will either select it, or activate it, or both.

Moving a small arrow around and clicking on objects is a very efficient way to navigate a computer. It is also a very visual method. What if you could no longer see the screen, how would you interact with anything on the computer? You wouldn't be able to tell where the cursor is, or on which item you were clicking. You may not even know where the items are located. Yet many people use their computers every day under these same conditions.

Imagine the entire use of your computer switching from "looking and seeing" to "listening and hearing". Remember those selected items I mentioned earlier? What if you clicked on a desktop item to select it and an outlined rectangle appeared around the item. As soon as the outline appeared a computer voice reads the name of the item out loud. Even if you could not see it, you would still know what is selected. What if you could move the selection around through the different desktop items using the arrow keys, and the voice reads each item as it becomes selected. Keep in mind, you are not moving the "items" around, but the selection itself. Maybe you could also click or activate the selected items by using certain keys on your keyboard. What if you could even access the Menus and Dock, navigating with the arrow keys launching apps and opening files, all by listening to what is happening on the screen?

Lets go a step farther and have the computer voice speak each letter as you type, with options for reading back whole words, sentences or even complete paragraphs. Lets also throw in several navigation modes, known as Commanders; shortcut key mode, arrow keys mode, numpad mode, and even gestures on the trackpad. Each of these modes allowing you to navigate, all controllable by you. You cannot see the screen, yet you can navigate much of your computer by sound.

Personally, I have only been exploring adaptive tech for about 5 years. Despite decades of being known as a tech-guru, I still consider myself to be a newbie with this screen reader stuff. It is a completely different experience from what I have always known. I now use my computer every day with the laptop screen brightness set to zero, and the lid half closed. It helps keep the dust off the keyboard. Sometimes I don't know where my mouse cursor is for weeks at a time. Sometimes my computer speaks with a British accent for a few days, then Australian, then an Irish lass, then back to US again,... because I get bored. Occasionally, I try using multiple voices at once, each one speaking a different type of information, but then it seems really crowded in here. I think they're up to something, the other day I swear I heard them ordering pizza, and I wasn't invited. Other times I get so familiar with the speaking rate of the voice that it seems slow, so I speed it up a notch or two. Then I get up the next morning and can't understand anything at first. Hey, who's been playing with the radio again! :-) This happens once or twice a year. I have been using it this way for several years now. I'm starting to level off in the 50s, referring to the speaking rate of course. Well okay, it applies to me as well.

Who Uses a Screen Reader?

Some people lose their ability to see their screen (like me), and use a screen reader as their only navigation mode. I am now listening to every key-press, every event that takes place on the screen, hearing how web pages are constructed, having my own writings read back to me by my computer, and when desired using several voices and sound effects simultaneously. It has given me a completely different view of the digital world. My "looking and clicking" was replaced with "listening and interacting."

Some people use Braille and a special keyboard, with a screen reader-like interface. From my very limited experience; Braille is a pattern of six dots that can be felt with your fingertips. The six dots can represent letters, numbers, a shorthand system, musical notes or even advanced scientific notation, depending on your usage and settings. A Braille display, a special keyboard for feeling and entering Braille dots, has a certain number of cells which display the screen, each cell having six dots that are raised or lowered so you can feel the pattern. These cells allow you to feel the screen, a certain number of characters at a time. Most Braille devices allow you to enter Braille as well, plus have additional keys for easier navigating. On a computer, Braille uses a "selection" type interface like the screen reader, which can be moved around and felt on the Braille display.

Some people have a little eyesight but struggle with a constant visual interface. They may use a screen reader as a supplement, even magnifying the outlined item as it moves. I went through an entire stage of my life this way, first using Zoom (like looking at your screen with a magnifying glass) and inverting the colors like a photo-negative, so that the screen was not so bright and easier to view. Eventually, I ended up using the screen reader with a magnified cursor. The screen reader cursor 'is' the selected item. Moving the selection around magnifies each item as you pass over. I first started learning the Mac VoiceOver screen reader with the computer voice muted, benefitting from the magnification instead. Some deaf or hearing impaired people who also have visual issues can benefit from this use of the screen reader as well.

Some people's hands or fingers won't cooperate, they may use a switch device and an automated screen reader-like interface. The selected item moves when they activate the switch, or the selection moves automatically on its own, scanning across the screen. The switch interface has settings to help control how the selection moves and allowing for interaction with the selected item.

If the screen reader voice is enabled, the computer will read the selection from any of the above methods of navigation. However, let's throw a twist into the works and turn on Speakable Items now integrated into the Dictation service, known as "Advanced/Custom Commands." We can not only learn to create and speak instructions that the computer listens to and follows, but we can dictate text as well, all by voice. And don't get me started on SIRI, yet.

So, what was the original question? If you are blind, how can you use a computer? What is a screen reader?

I think I can safely say it has nothing to do with an old woman in a smoky tent. Perhaps this answer was a bit on the side of over-kill, but their seems to be a gap in general awareness when it comes to adaptive technology. An understanding of adaptive technology is essential for those of us who depend on its functionality. Awareness that this technology exists by the tech-development community is also essential, to broaden it's use in the world. In its current state, adaptive technology still needs to be "allowed for" in the construction of the mainstream digital community. "Allowing for something" requires that people are aware of it's existence. This piece was written in part, for the sake of better awareness and the need for much more inclusion in the mainstream digital world.

Besides, some of the stuff we use to adapt is just darn cool!

A descriptive reminder that all of our cool digital stuff that we work with, play with and enjoy, is all about "Living." Live well!

Mac VoiceOver Morsels

Cmnd-Opt-left or right arrows, when a Dock item is selected, moves the Dock item to new positions.

Seven ways to open a selected item: ctrl-opt-spacebar, or if QuickNav is enabled up and down arrows together, additionally in the Finder cmnd-o, or cmnd-down arrow, or ctrl-opt-shift-m for pop up menu - choose open, or ctrl-opt-cmnd-f5 to move the mouse cursor to selection - then hold down ctrl-opt-shift and tap spacebar twice quickly to double-click the item, or, create a custom Dictation command that issues the shortcut cmnd-o, call it "Open selection". Whew! But wait, there's more...

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Submitted by Ekaj on Thursday, November 10, 2016

Nicholas, thanks for this great post. You've done a wonderful job describing a screen reader. As someone who has used them since the mid-90's, I would have to say you're right on. I have only been using VoiceOver since the beginning of 2014, but it has most certainly grown on me. With your permission, I'd like to post this to the Twitter account for my job and perhaps Facebook and LinkedIn. We conduct Disability Awareness trainings for various businesses, and part of my role is to discuss section 508. I have often been asked whether I talk to my computer or it talks to me. Lol maybe now the answer is both though!

Submitted by Nicholas on Thursday, November 10, 2016

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

In reply to by Ekaj

Thank you! Please share the link anyplace you wish. More awareness is the idea.
I'm glad you enjoyed the read.

Submitted by Weather Gods (Scott) on Thursday, November 10, 2016

Thanks for the article.

Submitted by David Goldfield on Saturday, November 12, 2016

I can well relate to constantly getting questions from people wanting to know how we do what we do. A while ago, I wrote such an FAQ on my Web site, which I'd like (if you don't mind) to share with you and other readers of this post. As I admit that I mainly use Windows along with my iPhone, some Mac users may understandably feel that the FAQ which I wrote leans heavily toward the Windows universe, an opinion I would probably agree with. However, it does mention the Mac and provides many relevant links.

Submitted by Nicholas on Saturday, November 12, 2016

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

In reply to by Weather Gods (Scott)

@ weather Gods,
You're welcome.
Thank you for your efforts as well!

Submitted by Nicholas on Saturday, November 12, 2016

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

@ David Goldfield,

Wow, what a great resource! Thank you for sharing. It only leaned a little towards Windows. :-)
Nicely Done!!

Submitted by Nicholas on Saturday, November 12, 2016

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

If you have a link or small piece written in layman's terms, describing how you use technology, please feel free to share it here. More awareness is the key.
Note: Tutorials are better submitted to the Guides section of AppleVis.

Submitted by kunal on Saturday, November 12, 2016

Thanks so much Nicholas, for this piece. Will definitely share here in India.