Ever since I learnt to touch type at age 11, I have preferred writing on keyboards to using a pen. I could not function without my computer and I usually use Microsoft’s accessibility features (such as zoom, magnification and high contrast colour schemes) to help me read what is on the screen. But since my second cataract operation last week, I do not have enough vision in my left eye to read using sighted methods. So I have begun working using a screen reader.
Screen readers are not entirely new to me. Thanks to Blind Creations I have learnt about the practical and creative benefits of using screen readers. Artist David Johnson presented a fascinating screen-reader art installation at Royal Holloway earlier this year, and French writer Romain Villet has produced a playful and clever screen-reader dialogue. Both of these artworks exemplify the creative potential of blind technologies and celebrate blindness for its own sake.
I started using a screen reader myself last week because I knew that after my operation I would have at least a few non-visual weeks. Most blind people I know use JAWS but this software is expensive and complicated to use without training. I decided instead to install the free NVDA software (although I did make a donation to support their excellent work). I had heard that NVDA has less functionality than JAWS but it is working well for me and is more than enough to allow me to comfortably navigate around my laptop and use outlook, word and internet explorer.
As I still have some sight, although not enough to read with, I am using NVDA to read me what appears on the screen and to tell me where to click. As well as speaking the content of dialogue boxes, notifications and documents, it also transforms the cursor into an aural guide whose tone varies in an incredibly intuitive way as I move it around the screen. This is the easiest way for me to navigate around windows but it only works because I am familiar with the visual layout of my screen. If I didn’t know that the file menu was at the top left hand corner of the screen in word, I would never be able to find it with the cursor. I really like the way that NVDA caters for people who are partially blind and want to use a combination of sighted and blind methods.
Another bonus of NVDA, and one which I was not expecting, is that it knows when I am writing in English and when in French and adjusts automatically as word does. This avoids the incomprehensible and frankly hilarious franglais which is produced when VoiceOver reads me French text on my Anglophone iPhone
So far I am finding NVDA surprisingly easy to use: I haven’t mastered all its subtleties yet but I know which keyboard commands (usually CAPS LOCK plus one or two keys) will read me letters, words, paragraphs or the whole text. This is the first blog post I have written using NVDA and It is no more effort than my more usual sighted approach. It does take longer because I am still learning, but the advantage of this is that I have more time to think about what I want to say and my prose is more accurate thanks to the built-in typo detector. As has been the case before with other blind technologies such as audio books and my white cane, I am wondering why it has taken me so long to embrace the screen reader. What a relief to be able to use my computer without hurting my eyes. I'm sure too that my posture will be better now that I don't need to sit with my face so close to the screen. I know lots of people who persist in using sighted methods even though screen readers would help them. A lot of people would find some screen reader features would combine well with a sighted approach. But our ocularcentric world dictates that our default technologies are often visual despite the clear practical (and artistic) benefits of blind ways of doing things. I am delighted that I have discovered NVDA and am sure that I will carry on using it even if/when I can use my left eye to read again.