How Persons With Visual Impairments Use PC,Internet

The term persons with visual impartments (PWVI) refers to people who are totally blind as well as those who are totally blind as well as well as those who are partially. Thanks to technology, PWVI are able to use computers and access the internet. They use computers assistive technology also referred to as adaptive technology to enable them use computers and access the internet. What are assistive technologies or adaptive technology you may ask?

These are either software or hardware that make it possible for persons with disabilities (PWDs) perform some functions which others may take for granted. Assistive technology products are designed to provide additional accessibility to individuals who have physical or cognitive difficulties, impairments and disabilities.

Persons who are totally blind use screen reader software which converts the text on the computer screen into speech. Screen readers use speech synthesizer to read the text loud. Synthetic speech systems comprise a synthesizer which does the speaking and the screen reader which tells the synthesizer what to say. The pitch of the synthesizer used can be adjusted to fast, medium or slow depending on the users preference. Blind computer users access a computer through a keyboard rather than a mouse. Some of the most commonly used screen savers are JAWS, Windows-Eyes and Zoomtext.

Screen magnifiers help partially sighted people to view the contents on a computer screen at various levels of magnification. The software enlarges information on the screen by incremental factors for example 2x up to 20x magnifications. Most of the screen magnifications programs have the flexibility to magnify the full screen, parts of the screen, a magnifying glass view of the area around the cursor or pointer. A screen magnifier can also change the background color and textual color to help those having trouble distinguishing a certain color combination. MAGic, ZoomText, and BigSHOT are some of the screen magnification software available.

Assistive technologies have been  instrumental in opening up access to online resources, communication avenues, social interaction forums as well as current news updates for person with visual impairment. PWVI can carry out research with the varied rich repositories available online and are able to access what they actually require. They can easily communicate through emails, interact with friends and acquaintances on face book, Skype and online chat forums. Online versions of the newspapers have made it easy for PWVI to follow both local as well as international news and therefore be updated on current news. There is also software that is installed on mobile phones to enable PWVI communicate and also access internet services.

Apart from screen reader and screen magnification software, the portable note takers have been of great help to PWVI. These are small electronic devices similar to electronic daily organizers available to anyone, with the exception that they have speech output and an optional Braille keyboard or a QWERTY keyboard for those who prefer touch-typing. They are lightweight portable note takers that provide speech output without a visual display and can be connected to printers and computers for printing and uploading text.

It is not all smooth though. There are accessibility issues which hinder easy access to internet facilities for PWVI. A screen reader cannot interpret images and as such if a description is not provided, a PWVI cannot tell what is displayed. Web developers and the administrators should ensure that they adhere to internationally set web accessibility standards.

The W3C Web Accessibility initiative (WAI) brings together people for industry, disability organization, government, and research labs from around the world to develop guidelines and resources to help make the web accessible to people with various types of disabilities including visual.  Detailed accessibility information can be accessed @ web design standards on accessibility.

The cost of the assistive technology is also prohibitive and therefore out reach for many of the PWVI. The JAWS screen reader for example cost about 100,000/= for a three user license! In reality, it is more affordable therefore to buy a computer than the software. Proprietary screen readers like the Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) bring reprieve to those who cannot afford the commercial versions like JAWS. NVDA is open source and can be downloaded freely for use.

Story by Lydia Kimundu (Administrator, Examinations Office)

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