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.