Screen readers open Windows for the blind
- By Michelle Speir
- Aug 07, 2000
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
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
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
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
"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