Off-Topic: Computing for the Blind

Martin McCormick martin at
Mon Mar 26 19:21:14 UTC 2012

	There may be several people on this list who are blind,
meaning no usable vision to see a screen. I definitely fit that
description so I will gladly try to answer questions which
breaks my usual practice here of asking beginner-level questions
even though I have been using FreeBSD for almost ten years.

	The easiest and most economical interface for computer
users who are blind is spoken speach. I am not talking about
speech recognition where you speak to the computer and it does
things, but speech synthesis where the computer runs an
application to read what is on the screen back to the person
using the system.

	One can learn to type and touch-typing was tought in
schools for the blind for scores of years before computers ever
even came on the scene. We pounded on typewriters and our
poor suffering typing teachers were the feedback mechanisms that
told us how we were doing. So, a person who is blind needs to
know how to type.

	Almost every operating system has a screen reading
program or several that one can install that reads the screen
back to you. There is a good screen reader for the Macintosh
which is included on every single Mac that runs OSX10.X. I like
it and the Mac's do run a customized version of BSD unix. The
screen reader for the Mac is called voiceover and you can
activate it by Command-F5 and then Command-F5 again to turn it

	The only drawback to voiceover is that for those of us
who do a lot of tinkering and compiling of source code on unix
systems, the screen reader makes listening to the stream of
consciousness almost useless because it resets itself each time
new output is detected.

	There is also a lot of really neat things going on in
Linux. We have Orca which is the GUI environment and some very
good software speech synthesizers for both the GUI and the
command line worlds. They tend to handle bursty output from
compilers and log tailings better than voiceover but you find
that both Mac and Linux screen readers shine in some things and
don't do so well in others so there is no clear winner.

	Finally, there is the Windows world. Microsoft may be
actually trying to improve their narrator application to where it
is a serious screen reader, but up to now, there is one free
screen reader that some people like to use plus several
commercial applications that cost an arm and a leg and are
always one upgrade away from being snuffed out and causing their
owners much grief.

	None of these screen readers are perfect, but most
computer users who are blind end up being reasonably happy with
one of them.

	I personally like Linux and the Mac because there is no
additional charge to install the screen readers and they
generally won't let you down.

	There are also Braille displays which some people use
but they are extremely costly.

	I mentioned the speech recognition systems. Many of
those actually present problems for those who are blind because
you need to train them on your speech and the feedback is
graphical so a good old keyboard is still the best input device.

	So as not to get totally off topic, I haven't heard of
any of the Linux screen readers being ported to FreeBSD. That
could be a problem for some people and not an issue at all for
others. Right now, I am typing on a Linux computer running a
software speech engine and I am editing this message on a
FreeBSD9.0 system via ssh and using vi on the actual message
file. It works great.

	If that Raspberry Pie Linux system turns out to be able
to support one of the Linux screen readers, we're talking about
a talking terminal for less than 100 US Dollars. We'll just have
to see what happens.

Martin McCormick WB5AGZ  Stillwater, OK 
Systems Engineer
OSU Information Technology Department Telecommunications Services Group

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