Refresher on Assistive Technologies for People with Vision Impairments

Kami Griffiths, my co-worker and training facilitator par excellence organized a Meetup last Friday at the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind, which I was fortunate enough to attend. The presenters, Patty Quinonez and Shen Kuan were both power users of assistive technology themselves and experts at training others. Patty demonstrated ZoomText, a powerful screen-magnification application, and Shen demonstrated JAWS, a well-known screen reading program. The key take-aways for me were:


1. Providing Technology Services to Low-Vision Populations Requires Flexibility and Listening Skills

The needs of assistive technology users are diverse and unique to the individual. There's no one-size-fits-all technology solution for blind and low-vision persons. People with macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, or other conditions that leave them with partial vision may prefer screen magnification programs. Blind clients frequently prefer screen reading software such as JAWS, though some of these clients like to receive output as audio and others choose a refreshable braille display. Another class of clients opts to switch back and forth between screen magnification and screen reading or use them both at once.

Patty mentioned that when she's introducing a new client to ZoomText and they move beyond 8x magnification, she usually suggests that they try a screen reader. I also learned that ZoomText and other magnifiers often have screen readers built in, which could be significant for organizations that can't afford screen readers (JAWS costs over $1,000 per license though there are free alternatives such as WebAnywhere and NVDA). Patty also said that different users prefer to anchor the screen magnifier in different places and ZoomText offers several options in this regard. Also, losing track of the mouse pointer icon is one of the most common obstacles for new users of ZoomText, but it's possible to change the color and size of the cursor such that it stands out prominently against almost any screen background. Finally, while ZoomText is a popular and full-featured screen magnifier, there are several competing products (for example, Dolphin Lunar, Magic, and Virtual Magnifying Glass) and Windows operating systems have many built-in accessibility features. Apple operating systems also have lots of accessibility options, and the staff at San Francisco LightHouse were especially impressed by the out-of-the-box accessibility of Apple products (for example, OSX is configured to offer speech feedback and screen reading from the first time it's turned on).

2. Assistive Technology Without Training for Staff and End-Users Is Pointless

And if you found a single technology that suited most of your clients, most clients would need unique, individual settings and one-on-one training. While experienced users of assistive technology can browse the web at lightning speed, there are a bewildering array of options and keyboard shortcuts for new users to adapt to. Therefore, it's important to understand the training options available in your area. SF LightHouse for the Blind offers one-on-one training and group training for low vision persons themselves. However, the LightHouse also offers training sessions and consulting services for the providers of assistive technology in their service area. If you work in the Bay Area and need help serving a low-vision client, get in touch with the San Francisco LightHouse, which has locations around the Bay. If you don't work in the Bay Area, most states have a department that coordinates services for disabled persons (for example, the California Department of Rehabilitation) and these organizations can usually point you toward services in your area.

3. Pay Attention to Accessibility Guidelines When Developing or Redesiging Websites

These presentations reminded me how important it is that all web developers pay attention to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). If you're not sure why this matters, find a computer lab in your area with a screen reader installed or use one of the free options mentioned above. It's awkward enough learning to use this interface to navigate and process information without mislabelled form fields and untagged photos. Also, you might install the Fangs extension for Firefox which provides a visual/textual representation of how a web page appears through a screen reader. Finally, take some time to check out the additional resources below.

Further Resources