Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Navigating without a mouse

In the main scheme of things, the sighted world normally uses a mouse whenever they navigate a website but it's not quite the same for me as a blind person.  You see, I am unable to point to icons and images because I am unable to see them on the screen.  I am unable to drag the mouse to open menus and click on icons and images, and I am unable to use my mouse to communicate on websites.
So you may be asking, how does a blind person navigate around a website?  If they are unable to see the screen, then how can they navigate around a website let alone communicate with others through the Internet?  We do it without a mouse and we use software known as access technology to help us navigate and communicate on the Internet.
Let's first take a look at what I mean by access technology.  Access technology is the name given to software that has been developed to help blind and sight impaired persons communicate with a computer screen.  How does it work?  It speaks everything that is on the screen to the user.  The user can manipulate the software to speak by character, by word, by sentence, by paragraph, by page, and by screen.
The user can have words spelled, have punctuations spoken, and can program their software to suit their preferences with regard to how things are to be spoken.  This software is also referred to as a screen reader. Screen reader software has been around since at least the mid to late 70s and companies such as IBM, Apple, and Microsoft have been heavily involved in the development of access technology.  
Others have also played a huge role as well and at the present time, some of the more popular screen reading software are:  Jaws, Windoweyes, and Hal.  Several other developers out there are constantly coming up with improvements to enhance screen reading software.  That is, to make them more powerful and better able to communicate with changing technology.
So, how does it all work?  A blind person uses the tab key in various combinations with the shift, alt, insert, and Ctrl keys to emulate mouse movements.  They also use the enter key on occasion as well.  They use these combinations to navigate through websites such as going from link to link, navigating through fields in a form, or for going from page to page. 
How does a blind person navigate from link to link?  They can do it in any of the following ways:  By using their tab key, or by using the up or down arrow keys.  They can also use another way to do this as follows:  By pressing a combination of two keys that would allow the screen reading software to bring up a list of links on the page.  Each screen reading software has its own unique combination of keys to do this.
How can they tell that they have already visited a link?  Most screen readers are programmed to tell the user this.  So for example; after they have visited a particular link on the page the screen reader tags it and the next time the user tabs or arrows up or down, the word "visited"is spoken when the user reaches the link in question.  So for example:  If the user has already visited the contact us link and is now browsing the rest of the page, as soon as they either tab or arrow up or down to the contact us link, the screen reader will speak the words "contact us visited."
Can screen reader software navigate graphics, images, and icons?  Only if the graphic, image, or icon has been specially labelled by the website developer.  That is, if the developer has programmed their code to identify the graphic, image,or icon as such with an accompanying description. In other words, in order for the screen reader to be able to identify a graphic, image, or icon, it has to be properly coded with an appropriate description.
What happens if a graphic, image, or icon has not been properly labelled?  In general, the screen reader either ignores it or gives a meaningful message to indicate that it is unable to read it.
How does a blind person navigate between the address bar and the main body of the web page?  By either using a pre assigned F key or some other key designated by the screen reading software. 
Can a sighted person learn how to use a screen reader?  Definitely so.  With a little training and some patience, it is not too difficult.
Of course there is a lot more that I can tell you but this is a good start and if you would like to learn more, then please visit www.nfb.org.
I'm Donna J. Jodhan your friendly accessibility advocate wishing you a terrific day.

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