2. Screen-reading software for the blind.

Access to the web for the visually impaired.
by Ashif Sindhi*

When the internet began to become part of popular culture in the early to mid 1990s I was visually impaired but still had sufficient sight to get around without a white stick. I knew I would loose my sight totally and began preparing for when that happened, which it did, eventually, in 1999. I taught myself website design and now offer technical support and training for others who, like me, are blind or are visually impaired. I like to use the Internet. I do so by using particular software which allows me to access the Internet and to communicate with friends, family and business associates across the world. I use, and also sell on a commission basis, screen readers (software), magnification products and voice recognition software. Perhaps the most important of these is screen-reader software. Some is available free.

The screen reader I prefer to use is called JAWS. It is a Microsoft product. The technology has helped me with my confidence and independence. I can do my weekly shopping using the Internet. I can buy and sell on eBay, and I can use Internet search engines. Technically I am not restricted in the type of hardware I use, as long as it meets the criteria such as the processor speed, RAM and ROM. The technology works with the Microsoft operating systems Windows Vista, all editions and windows XP, all editions. Mac and Linux have their own versions of screen-reading software. JAWS works with application software such as Microsoft office 2003 as well as 2007 and Adobe Acrobat Reader. It is compatible with web browsers such as Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. JAWS does its job by reading the screen content aloud to a blind or visually impaired computer user. That means JAWS uses synthesised speech, also called TTS, which means text to speech engine. Nowadays there are many text to speech engines available, giving users a choice of the voice that speaks screen content. The screen content might be the words a sighted viewer would see on a screen, or it could be the source code that shapes what appears on the screen and which becomes visible to sighted reader when they right click and select the view source option.

Let's consider some websites as seen through a screen reader software - mine, and the US supreme Court. Of the three I would give the US Supreme Court website 8 out of 10 for accessibility using a screen reader and mine and GavaghanCommunications a score of 6 out of 10. First the US Supreme Court site, located at

When I visited this website my screen reader read out the following information:

The title of the website. In this case it is the US Supreme Court. That is always what JAWS reads out first. If you are sighted and want to see the title of a webpage look at the top of the page or right click and view source. Arrowing further down the site the screen reader next read to me that it had come to an image of the seal of the Supreme Court. Then the screen reader told me I had reached a form field by saying the word "edit". That tells me I have encountered a form where one can type in some words to extract relevant information. I am using a version of Jaws with new features and do not have to invoke forms mode as one did with earlier version of the software. The professional version of the product costs £795 whilst a standard version is £659.

To enable me to fill in a particular form on the webpage JAWS automatically switches mode so that I can start typing. The user hears sounds when they encounter forms and when they have finished. All I would have to do to run a search on the US Supreme Court site is what any sighted reader would do. I would press enter on the keyboard after I have filled in what I am searching for, which brings the relevant search options to my attention. As I arrowed further down the home webpage of this site I came across links and JAWS told me how many there were and read out the items. To a sighted reader these fall within the box captioned, "Recent decisions". In all, on the home page there are 16 link. JAWS also detects headings, that is those parts of a site that the website developer has coded as a heading using h tags. Towards the end of the website or the webpage JAWS read out that the graphic on the page was the front of the Supreme Court building. To get a better score from me for accessibility I would want better descriptions of the images. The screen reader says the picture is of the front of the building, but what does it look like, what is it made of, glass, marble, stone? There is also nothing in Jaws that says where the image is located on the page.

If I wanted to view all the links on the webpage I would press the insert key followed by F7, this would bring up all the links on the web page in a dialogue box so that as the user I could arrow down and use the first letter of the links to navigate to a particular link and press enter.

When reviewing this site I then selected a page at random, accessible from the home page. I chose to follow the link to "what's new". That is, I pressed the insert key and then F7 to bring up the links list and then pressed the letter W to take me to the link for what's new and then pressed on that link. As I landed on the page, JAWS read out that the page has 47 links with one heading. Using a rival screen reading product, System Access by Serotek, on the same web page gave me the same result as using JAWS. Some of the key strokes are similar to JAWS' keystrokes, so it is comparatively easy for a user to change between these two screen readers. System Access costs just short of £300, but the company also provides a free version for when someone is at a computer and linked to the Internet.

Overall I think the above website is presented well and is easy to navigate for blind or vision impaired users.

When I visited GavaghanCommunications the screen reader software first read out to me the long title. The first heading I come to was level V for the latest issue of Science, People & Politics. Then JAWS read out to me the other level five headings on the page. The next being, issue three, May - June, political salaries and expenses, then, making proteins. The site generally is well presented but to make it more accessible to a screen reader I would want more distinction between links and headings.

Finally for my own site. As you would expect it is easily navigable by a screen reader, but adding images would perhaps make it more attractive to a sighted reader. So for that reason I give myself 6 out of 10.

*Ashif Sindhi is a sole trader based in Leicester in the UK. He provides technical support and training services for the visually impaired and blind. He also offers consultancy to clients wanting to provide user-friendly services to the visually impaired and blind. I first met Mr Sindhi when I was setting up my own website and was fascinated to hear a screen reader in action. I hope to provide an oral presentation on this site by Mr Sindhi later this month or access to an oral presentation by him.

The link to Mr Sindhi's oral presentation will be added when his business permits him the time to edit his presentation and to make the link available.

Words Ashif Sindhi© Layout and design html Helen Gavaghan©. Commissioned and edited by Helen Gavaghan. Where Mr Sindhi wrote that JAWS is a microsoft product he meant to write that JAWS gives access to Microsoft products and is supplied by Freedom Scientific. Helen Gavaghan.