Comments on Screen Readers

May 31, 2011

Here are some miscellaneous comments on Text-to-Speech screen readers:

From Stomme Poes

I have also come across installed on the website that will read out your website to people which is cool

This type of service I’m starting to see on more and more newspaper/article sites. It’s not for the totally blind (who are very likely to have their own screen reader/refreshable Braille device, otherwise how are they using a computer on their own?) but I suppose an assistance for everyone else: low/degrading vision, dyslexics, or those who learned the site’s language as a second/third/etc language and maybe speak/listen better than they read.

A screen reader is much more, though. It’s got a whole set of navigation tools built in and it understands markup (among other things). It can be hooked up with a screen magnifiuer for low-vision folks or to a refreshable Braille reader for those who’ve learned Braille (and even at 16 or 32 characters at a time, people using those are way faster than people with just a screen reader… plus lack of speakers isn’t an issue then : ) It’s not just passive reads-stuff-to-you software.
NVDA is great for testing websites. It seems to be better at forms, tables and ARIA-stuff than JAWS, tho I don’t have the latest JAWS anymore so who knows. Screen readers are like browsers: they have their own bugs and quirks. Just because one reader does something correctly doesn’t mean all the others do. Using one is good for getting a feel for your website though, in a way using Lynx doesn’t.

Oh and since a screen reader reads through a browser, you might notice slight differences between browsers as well. You can run NVDA on Firefox and IE, though I dunno if it works on Chrome yet (didn’t used to, JAWS neither) since Chrome hadn’t implemented its accessibility layer (where information from the page code is offered to the screen reader)… and Opera, I’ve never dared : )

From RGuy84
I agree that read speaker is for other types of disabilities besides blindness. I will disagree with Poes though on her second paragraph. If you need a magnifier and speech output, I would not recommend JAWS + ZoomText/Dolphin combo. While the two work together in tandem these days, they can still have wonky effects because both pieces of software wants to control the OS. In my experience the output ZoomText is enough for most. For clients that say they need both, I tell them what they may experience, and I cannot really fix these bugs.

Scientists create replacements for dead Retinal Cells.

May 30, 2011

Macular Degeneration and Retinitis Pigmentosa lead to the death of the photo-receptor cells (the rods and the cones) in the retina. Scientists at the MIT Media Lab and at EOS Neuroscience are working on a replacement for dead photo-receptor cells.

Light Photocells are created by using the DNA from photosensitive algae implanted in bi-polar retinal cells. The bi-polar cells normally amplify the signal from the rods and cones and pass the nerve signal to the ganglions which then feed the optic nerve. The implanted DNA causes the bi-polar cells to become photo-receptors, thus restoring sight.

Synthetic Neuro-Biology Group at the MIT Media Lab


Illustration of Photo-receptors, bipolar conductors and ganglion

Light Photocells created by using algae to implant light sensitivity in bi-polar retinal cells.

Research on Macular Degeneration Cure

May 30, 2011

Q: Is there any new research into an eventual cure for the lost sight caused by macular degeneration of aging?

A: Yes, there is. Researchers from the Schepens Eye Research Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, are the first to regenerate large areas of damaged retina and improve sight using a novel approach of inducing skin cells to transform into multipurpose stem cells and subsequently into retinal nerve cells. This may one day restore sight to those with macular degeneration, plus other retinal diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and retinitis pigmentosa.

Like embryonic stem cells, these stem cells derived from skin cells have the potential to be transformed into any number of tissues throughout the body – not just retinal tissue. However, these stem cells lack the ethical and political issues of embryonic stem cells because they are not derived from fetal tissue.

Although this research is in its early stages (it has been studied only in lab mice to date), this form of stem cell regeneration holds enormous promise in the restoration of lost sight caused by any number of medical conditions. Also, this technology of skin cell-derived stem cells may one day be applied to organ and limb regeneration.


Vitamin A Combats Macular Degeneration

May 30, 2011

Individuals who already consume healthy amounts of fruits, multicolored vegetables, leafy greens and dietary supplements may be excited to learn that a special kind of vitamin A appears to slow the onset of macular degeneration (MD).

Experts have known for years that vitamin A affects the severity of MD. For instance, the NEI found that high doses of the nutrient – 25,000 international units – combined with large amounts of zinc and cupric oxide, prevented the onset of MD in aging patients.

Also, a new study conducted at the Columbia University Medical Center found that a special form of vitamin A, which contains an isotope of hydrogen called deuterium, may clump up less in the eye’s small blood vessels. This effect could lead to better natural treatments for MD.

Message from

May 18, 2011

Lauren Tappan has posted this item from

3 Photos of Student Members Listening
May 17, 2011

Your immediate action is needed to help hundreds of thousands of students with print disabilities.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is wavering on his commitment to hold a competition to fund accessible educational materials and textbooks for the hundreds of thousands of students who cannot use a standard textbook.

You need to e-mail Secretary Duncan’s office today to urge him to hold the competition and preserve the program.

Under the FY 2011 budget passed by the Congress, Secretary Duncan has the discretion to hold a competition for the development, production and distribution of educational materials in accessible formats to students with visual impairments and other print disabilities. The US Department of Education has supported this project for more than 30 years, and President Obama included it in his FY 2011 budget plan. Now the Secretary might use these funds for other projects!

The Secretary needs to hear from you today to prevent the shifting of funds away from this vital program.

The Secretary might make his decision as soon as the end of the week so we need you to e-mail him today. Your voice and that of hundreds of other supporters urged the Congress to preserve the funding in the budget, and Congress heard you and took action. Now we need your voice to urge Secretary Duncan to preserve the funding for accessible materials and to hold the competition.

Hundreds of thousands of students benefit from this program each year and if the Secretary does not fund it this year its future is unknown. We need your voice to be heard again!

Please e-mail Secretary Duncan’s office today. We have included the sample language below to help you in making your e-mail. Please add your personal story, name and hometown to your message!

Secretary Duncan’s e-mail is

RE: Urgent Support Needed for Students with Print Disabilities

Dear Secretary Duncan:

I am writing to share with you my support for the accessible educational materials project and Learning Ally.

Learning Ally has a long-established relationship with the Department of Education and has had broad support in Congress, state departments of education and 10,000 schools from coast to coast. I urge you to continue that support by holding a competition for the development, production and distribution of educational materials in accessible formats to students with visual impairments and other print disabilities.

Learning Ally is a critical partner in the success of hundreds of thousands of students, and federal support of their efforts, leveraged with private philanthropy, has made much of their work possible. Continue USDE’s 30-year commitment to students with disabilities and hold the competition.


As we keep the pressure up on the Department with our allies in Congress, we will update our Policy Advocates’ Center with developments as they occur. We will also share critical Advocates’ Action Alerts with you when key decisions are to be made.

Your support has helped to preserve this program so far, and will be a key to its future!

Preserving your Vision at the People’s Pharmacy

May 14, 2011

Dr. Robert Abel, Ophthalmologist, was the guest on the People’s Pharmacy on Staurday, May 14, 2011. It was Show # 813, Preserving Your Vision.

Most of us take our vision for granted until it starts to give us trouble. Dry eyes can be a consequence of too much time in front of a screen. Are there other lifestyle factors putting us at risk for vision problems?

Cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration are major causes of vision loss. What can we do to prevent their development?

Guest: Robert Abel, Jr., MD, is an ophthalmologist with Delaware Ophthalmology Consultants. His books include The Eye Care Revolution and The DHA Story and most recently the novel Lethal Hindsight. His website is

He gave excellent advice on Glaucoma, Macular Degeneration, eye nutrition and Cataracts.

The podcast of this program will be available the Monday after the broadcast date. Podcasts can be downloaded for free for six weeks after the date of broadcast. After that time has passed, digital downloads are available for $2.99. CDs may be purchased at any time after broadcast for $9.99.

Let’s Give the Blind Better Access to Online Learning

May 12, 2011

Posted by Gail Johnson

By Virginia A. Jacko

It is ironic that in an age when technology could erase so many barriers for blind students, colleges and universities are not paying enough attention to accessibility in their online services.

Online learning should be a significant advantage for blind and visually impaired students because of the absence of physical barriers—there is no struggle to locate classrooms, deal with elevators, or walk between buildings on a large campus. While most colleges attempt to comply reasonably with the Americans With Disabilities Act, all too often the developers and publishers of software and online course-management systems, digital textbooks, and other course materials—as well as the colleges that buy their products—ignore the needs of blind and visually impaired students.

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I first expressed concern about digital accessibility more than 10 years ago, when I was a financial executive at Purdue University. When Purdue launched its distance-learning initiative, like many universities it did not see accessibility as a priority. I was then losing my eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary eye disease that causes gradual vision loss leading to total blindness, and I was becoming aware of how technology can both help and hinder the disabled. Purdue adopted an online-purchasing system that shut out the visually impaired. When I alerted the software designers and the company’s president, they were unaware of the problem. At the time, we had several older employees, and this oversight caused some people to leave their positions prematurely, a blow to the university’s human-resources pool.

People often assume that virtual technology, that world-at-your-fingertips magic that has been so entrancing and useful to almost everyone in the developed world for the past 15 years, erases barriers for the blind. After all, we hear all the time about how anyone with Internet access can find out practically anything. But it just isn’t true: I have been totally blind for almost 10 years, and without my screen-reading software the world my computer offers is nothing but a smooth pane of glass. The intricacies of digital forms and Web-page interfaces may not seem formidable at first glance (although heaven knows enough of my sighted friends complain about Web sites). But as The Chronicle has reported (“Colleges Lock Out Blind Students Online,” December 12, 2010), these barriers are just as real as any physical barrier. My guide dog, Kieran, helps me negotiate physical barriers, but he certainly can’t do anything for me online!

Colleges must press software designers to make their online applications accessible. Screen-reading software, which responds to computer keystrokes by reading out loud the text displayed on the monitor, is one solution. If every component of a Web site has a text element, the screen-reading software should work. I use JAWS (Job Access With Speech) software, which works extremely well with Microsoft software. I am able to use Outlook, Word, and Excel by running JAWS simultaneously.

Federal standards on access to electronic and information technology (referred to as Section 508) require keyboard-enabled interfaces. The technical standards for software are clear: “When software is designed to run on a system that has a keyboard, product functions shall be executable from a keyboard where the function itself or the result of performing a function can be discerned textually”—in other words, it should be readable by screen-reading software like JAWS. In addition, all graphic elements on Web pages must have a textual description. The federal regulations also are clear about accessibility of online forms. You would think this one would be a no-brainer, but look at all the trouble caused by online-course software that would not allow students using assistive technology to submit their assignments online the way other students could, as described in the December article in The Chronicle.

Our computer instructors at Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired Inc., of which I am president, have heard complaints about online accessibility from blind and visually impaired students attending colleges in Florida, but such complaints are not unique to our state.

I have also heard success stories, especially in cases where students used distance-learning course software developed by Angel Learning Inc. With the acquisition of the company by Blackboard Inc., a more flexible environment for teaching and learning should develop, which may begin to resolve accessibility problems with screen-reading software.

The most frequent issue involves Web sites that are not accessible or are very difficult to use. The screen-reading software is unable to read graphics that do not include a text component. Other complaints we hear involve professors who send e-mails with attachments that are scanned documents, rather than text that can be rendered by screen-reading software. A scanned document is just like a picture as far as screen-reading software is concerned, and therefore reads as “blank.” Another issue is that some Web sites have automatic, continuous instant-messaging updates or continuous chats, which need to have a link to disable them, because JAWS frequently garbles the constantly changing text.

Miami Lighthouse has formed partnerships with software companies as a test site for other kinds of accessible technology, and we would welcome the opportunity to work with developers on accessible courseware and other learning technology—but no one has asked! It isn’t enough anymore for a university to have an office of disability services that provides course assistants and a place for students to complain. We are living in a world that has fully embraced digital technology and media, and the blind and other disabled people have the right to participate in it fully.

It is not an impossible or even a difficult task to make sure all graphic elements are keyboard-enabled. Software designers for colleges and other institutions will make accessibility automatic when they realize their market demands it. It would also help for faculty members to keep accessibility in mind and think twice before, say, attaching scanned course material to an e-mail or requiring participation in a live chat, which is a big challenge for JAWS software.

Many universities are expanding their distance-learning curricula, which can be very lucrative. But if that expansion includes the large-scale use of Web-based materials that shut out blind students, universities will eventually have to account for that failure.

Accessibility affects everyone in the long run. It is perplexing that colleges and universities spend significant amounts of money on diversity initiatives aimed at promoting ethnic and socioeconomic diversity but fail to consider curriculum access for the visually impaired. It is especially perplexing when you consider that the software to solve accessibility problems already exists, and federal regulations are in place that require access to online information.

We know that better online access for the blind is possible because we have seen it happening at Miami Lighthouse. Our vision-rehabilitation program has an extensive assistive-technology component. It is vital for our clients to know they can regain the ability to use computers, phones, and other electronic devices for work, education, socializing—everything the sighted world uses technology for. Our vocational-rehabilitation clients make extensive use of accessibility software for business and music applications, which has helped many of them find or keep rewarding, mainstream employment. Colleges must provide better accessibility for the blind and visually impaired, especially as the colleges vigorously embrace diversity.

Virginia A. Jacko is president and chief executive of Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired Inc. She is co-author of The Blind Visionary (Governance Edge Press, 2010).