Clear view for the sightless
- By Patrick Marshall
- Sep 17, 2001
A good screen reader for the visually impaired shouldn't just read aloud the text of documents and menus—it should also be able to handle changing options on pop-up dialog boxes and provide ways for the user to know which window is being read on the display.
The best screen readers also enable users to customize pronunciations and run macros. What's more, the whole thing must work not only with the operating system, but also with all the applications people want to use.
Window-Eyes, from GW Micro Inc., is one of the top screen readers available, and the latest version—Window-Eyes 4.11—offers new application compatibilities and a host of improvements in reading capabilities and user controls.
We were impressed with how easy it was to install Window-Eyes. The product comes with installation manuals in printed text and Braille. And the setup routine can be run in speech mode so installation can take place without any sighted assistance. The installation program can also play the user manual and tutorial. User guides are provided on the disc in ASCII, MP3 and PDF formats.
Window-Eyes offers virtually complete control over how screens are read. You can, for example, control the rate at which the program vocalizes your keystrokes, and you can also control the pitch, tone and volume of the voice synthesizer in "set" files. The program also enables you to edit pronunciation settings for words, labels or punctuation.
The program does an excellent job of letting you know where you are, even if you have multiple applications loaded. And Window-Eyes provides easy-to- configure hotkeys.
What's more, Window-Eyes offers separate screen, keyboard and mouse voices to make it that much easier to distinguish the information being provided by the screen reader. By default, all the voices are generated by Eloquent Technology Inc.'s Eloquence SAPI bundled speech synthesizer, which delivers above-average voice synthesis.
The program provides a number of special features to make sightless navigation of screens easier. User-definable hotkeys, for example, allow users to control such actions as moving from one window or dialog box to another. And Window-Eyes provides two types of windows designed to make interactions easier. "Standard" windows can be employed for reading certain parts of the display while ignoring others. You might, for example, set one window to read the first column of a two-column display while ignoring the other, thus solving the problem of earlier screen readers that could only read straight across a display.
Alternatively, users can employ "hyperactive" windows. Such windows monitor the display for changes and launch macros when specified changes are detected. You might, for example, set a hyperactive window to monitor an application's status line and send a message when a change occurs.
This new version of Window-Eyes offers a number of major enhancements. At the top of the list is support for a wide array of Braille displays, a feature already offered by JAWS (Job Access With Speech) from Freedom Scientific Inc.—which, along with Window-Eyes, is the other market-leading screen reader—but until now lacking in Window-Eyes.
The new version also offers support for tables in Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer Web browsers and in Adobe Systems Inc.'s Acrobat PDF files. We were a bit disappointed, however, to find that Window-Eyes still does not support tables as effectively as JAWS. Although both products can read the contents of tables on Web sites, only JAWS can read the column headings when browsers other than Internet Explorer are in use.
Another new feature that we liked was support for progress bars and scroll bars. Sighted users can see at a glance how much of a document is left to read. With this feature, when users activate the hotkey, Window-Eyes will check the active window for a progress bar and read it out. If there is no progress bar in the active window, the program will search for a scroll bar and read out its position.
Window-Eyes will currently work only with Windows 95, 98 and Me operating systems. Those versions of Windows do not offer the security features available in Windows 2000, NT or XP.
That said, this new version of Window-Eyes represents a major improvement that users at federal agencies will find very attractive.