How do blind people use computers?

This is another of those questions posed by one of my readers and it’s one I often get asked by people when I talk about using a computer to surf the web, send emails etc etc. It’s also an area I can get far too geeky about and take for granted as I’ve been using computers for study, work and recreation most of my life.

So how do blind people use a computer?

Well the answer to that question depends on what level of vision a person does or doesn’t have. For someone like me who hasn’t been able to usefully see a screen for a good 10 years or so now there are speech screen readers that speak out the contents of a screen be it a web page, email message, word processed document, spreadsheet etc etc. One common misconception is that this is means that the user “talks” to their computer and doesn’t use a keyboard, this is something very different namely speech recognition which I do use on occasions but not much . Most blind people know their way around a standard computer keyboard and many like myself are pretty good touch typists; I have been touch typing since I was 12 years old so not seeing the keyboard doesn’t bother me.

Of course as with any technology it’s not all plain sailing. As much as speech screen readers are very advanced these days there are still certain issues with asking all aspects of using a computer such as problems with badly designed web pages and third party software / applications which are often designed without the needs of blind people in mind. That said however blind people are often very resourceful and good at finding work arounds. On the whole therefore by using a speech screen reader most blind people are able to do the majority of things sighted computer users would be able to including using Facebook, twitter and of course writing a blog!!

What often surprises people however is the fact that as good as this technology is it doesn’t come cheap, one of the leading Windows screen readers costing in the region of £800 although there are cheaper alternatives. There is funding available to purchase this software in a work / education context but not if you want it for home use. This is one reason why about 18 months ago I switched from using a PC to using a Mac at home as all modern Mac computers come with h a built-in screen reader called Voiceover at no extra charge. I’m actually sat wording this blog entry on my macbook Pro laptop using a program called macjournal to easily upload it to the blog for you to read.

Of course I’ve only just scratched the surface of computer accessibility, I haven’t even mentioned such things as braille displays, screen-enlargement technology and the various methods available for accessing books and other reading material in an electronic format, perhaps I’ll leave that for another post!

so hopefully this goes a little way to explaining how blind people use computers and takes away some of the mystique of wondering how on earth a blind person could read an email or a web page. Please do ask any follow-up questions if there’s anything else you’d like to know in this area.

9 Responses to “How do blind people use computers?”

  1. Andrea Says:

    Fascinating Phil! As someone with dyslexia, I was advised to use speech recognition software. I didn’t like it at all; it only typed up what I wanted when I got frustrated and swore!
    I’ve done a typing course though so don’t need to look at the keyboard either – unless I am using my netbook which has a slightly different layout.

    • philstep Says:

      Thanks as ever Andrea. I know what you mean about voice recognition although to be fair I have found it quite useful on occasions particularly as my underlying condition is a type of arthritis so I do use voice recognition from time to time just to rest my hands when having to do lots of typing. I do know from my work at Uni however that students with dyslexia often get recommended voice recognition but it doesn’t work for all of them.

      thanks again and keep reading!!

  2. Natalya Says:

    I shall keep this post in mind as a nice friendly and clear intro to some ways visually impaired people can use computers because it’s hugely relevant.

    I recently had a chat with a friend in academia who is not yet teaching but is likely to once she’s finished gallivanting around the world. She was saying she wouldn’t think a blind person could do university because she couldn’t see how a blind person would read.

    After explaining a bit about optical character recognition, text-to-speech such as Jaws and demonstrating VoiceOver on the iPad to her and explaining that people can get very very good and fast at using the tech she had a better understanding and said she wouldn’t be scared any more.

    It’s also one of the things which makes my job most satisfying, when I can change things from “that is impossible and never going to happen” to “Oh I see how that is now possible and how it works and what the reality of constraints or why someone needs the adjustments that they do”.

    • philstep Says:

      Hi Natalya, thanks for commenting. You know e I could go super-geeky but my aim for this blog is to keep it as simple as I can whilst still being informative. As you’ll be aware there is a lot of myth and vonfusion around the subject of how blind people (and indeed disabled people in general) do everyday things in this case using a computer and so if this blog helps break down the mystery a bit then that’s good.

      Your comments re your academic frined reminds me of a Dr. who following one of my man corneal infections said he would sign me off work until I could see to use a comptuer – I had to laugh and sa to him that I hadn’t beena ble to see to use a comptuer for a long time now and so he could ahve a long wiat and might as well retire me there and then!! he couldn’t get his head around how I could use a comptuer without being able to see the screen!! I wouldn’t care but he was a relatively young guy and so I thought he’d have a bit more awareness, obviously not!!

      Anyway I’m glad you’re finding the blog useful and keep reading…

    • Andrea Says:

      Natalya, our next door neighbour is completely blind and partially deaf, lives on his own and has also done a music degree.

      Anything is possible!


  3. drsdsphmc Says:

    Ah ha! So that’s how you do it!

    I would love to hear about those other things too.

    • philstep Says:

      Aha indeed!! I guess I could’ve siad I get Erica to act as my secretary and do all my PC work for me but I I’d never get away with that with a CM!!

      I’ll perhaps write soemthing about the other stuff soemtime soon, be careful though, once I get started with gadgets it’s ahrd to stop me!!

  4. Helen Says:

    Hi Phil, I have been reading your blog with interest, we had been looking at accessibility software for my dad for a few years and last year my husband came across a video demonstrating the ipad being used with voice over. Now my Dad who lost the last bit of his sight over 30 years ago and has never used or even seen a PC can google, email and all sort of things he had only heard of before. The way the keyboard works meant it didn’t matter that he didn’t know the layout and he as ever amazed me with the way he picked up something so new, so quickly.
    Praying lots for you and your family.
    Helen. Another one from Christian Mums!

    • philstep Says:

      Hi Helen & thanks for your comment & prayers.

      Whilst there are many things ou could criticise Apple for I think the way they they have built in acessibility as part of the standard build for all their computers and I devices is fantastic and leaves others like Microsoft way behind. I have been using an Iphone 3gs for 18-months now and love it and can do most things using Voiceover. I would love an Ipad but can’t really justify it as Erica and I already have an iPhone and Macbook pro each!! I’m glad your dad is finding his Ipad useful – I thin that’s the other thing Apple do well, designing things that just work and don’t take too long to learn how to use.

      Thanks again & keep reading.

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