Screen readers open Windows for the blind

Screen readers are in the forefront of technologies that are helping to

open the federal workplace to disabled people — in this case, people who

are blind or vision- impaired.

When a screen reader is running, a synthesized voice reads items on

the screen aloud, describes graphics and states the user's keyboard commands.

The program will, for example, say "tab" when the user presses the tab key.

Designed to eliminate the need to use a mouse, screen readers enable users

to navigate the screen and execute all commands using keyboard shortcuts.

Screen readers work with Microsoft Corp. Windows operating systems and

all standard Windows applications. Most will run using standard sound cards

and speakers that come with today's desktop PCs. Higher-end, hardware-based

speech synthesizers and other devices are optional.

Most screen readers have mastered PC applications, but how they handle

material on the Web is a key differentiator.

Screen readers are faced with the daunting task of reading links scattered

about on a page and information arranged in tables. For example, a Web page

arranged in columns would make no sense to a listener if the lines were

read from left to right across the page — which some early versions of screen

readers would do.

Another problem results from sloppy coding of Web pages. Screen readers

do not read the surface text; they read the underlying code. When this code

is not labeled to reflect the text of the link, it exists as a string of

numbers, slashes and random letters. That string of nonsense is what the

screen reader will read aloud.

Activists are bringing the problem to the attention of Webmasters, so

improvements should be on the way. Meanwhile, even the best screen readers

can't do anything about a poorly coded Web page.

Of the dozen or so screen readers on the market, two have emerged as

clear market leaders, and both are used by federal employees: JAWS for Windows

by Henter-Joyce, a division of Freedom Scientific, and Window-Eyes by GW

Micro Inc.

The two have been running neck-and-neck for years, trying to keep up

with the other's improvements. New versions of both are due out within the

next few months.

Patrick Sheehan, a computer specialist with the Department of Veterans

Affairs who has low vision, is a longtime user of both products. He said

he likes them both and feels that they are nearly equal in most aspects

except one: their handling of the Internet.

"They both do a wonderful job, and they're very stable, but they have

different strengths," Sheehan said. "The Web is where you distinguish the

two products."

He explained that the current version of JAWS for Windows, Version

3.5, supports the Java programming language, but Window-Eyes Version 3.1

does not. JAWS' support for tables on the Web is more robust. Specifically,

Window-Eyes will read the data in the tables but not the column headings,

while JAWS (which stands for Job Access With Speech) reads both the data

and the headings.

"The current version of JAWS gives you more flexibility on the Web,"

Sheehan said, "but GW Micro is working on it."

The next version of Window-Eyes, due out in September, will not include

these two Web functions, but future versions will, said Clarence Whaley,

director of sales and marketing for GW Micro. Whaley said the company's

first priority for the upcoming release (Version 4.0) is support for refreshable

Braille devices. JAWS already supports those devices, which display the

Braille version of each line the screen reader is reading.

Another key difference between the two products is that Window-Eyes

uses the Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) standard (see box, Page 28),

while JAWS has its own scripting. Sheehan likes GW Micro's use of the standard

scripting. "As Microsoft gets better, [Window-Eyes] will get better," he


Dan Clark, an account development manager at Freedom Scientific, said

the company's use of proprietary scripting results in a more powerful product.

"We welcome Microsoft's efforts, but we feel that [MSAA] is not robust enough,"

he said. One example is MSAA's inability to read tables. Clark added that

JAWS does use MSAA in cases where that scripting works well.

When it comes to non-Internet use, Sheehan explained that it's virtually

impossible to distinguish the two products. They both rely heavily on Microsoft's

standard keystrokes, and they both use the same keypad keystrokes for moving

the cursor.

A handful of other differences separate the products. JAWS requires

particular video settings, but Window-Eyes does not. JAWS Version 3.5 will

not run properly unless the computer's display is set to 256 colors, and

the upcoming Version 3.7 will require a 16-bit high-color display.

Installing Window-Eyes often is easier than installing JAWS for a couple

of reasons. First, it does not require any kind of registration, while JAWS

comes with a separate registration floppy disk that sometimes causes problems

because it does not work in an LS-120 super disk drive. Virus protection

software also interferes with the JAWS installation process.

Technical support is another differentiator. GW Micro's Whaley stressed

that Window-Eyes technical support does not have voice mail; callers will

always reach a person. Freedom Scientific's Clark said that JAWS users may

sometimes have to wait for support, but the wait is three minutes or less.

One nice extra included with JAWS is Eloquence for JFW, a multilingual

software speech synthesizer. In addition to the support for multiple languages,

Eloquence distinguishes itself from the Microsoft speech synthesizer by

its more natural-sounding speech.

One final key difference is price. Window-Eyes costs $595, and JAWS

costs $795.

"I might recommend JAWS over Window-Eyes right now," Sheehan said,

"but it would be difficult to choose."

At present, JAWS does offer more features, but with both products competing

so closely, they are sure to continue improving in order to stay in the



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