The Braille Monitor                                                                        November 2005


You Want Me to Learn What?

by Ameenah Lippold

From the Editor: Ameenah Ghoston became Mrs. Ameenah Lippold on October 8. She is an access technology specialist at the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC) of the NFB Jernigan Institute. She originally wrote a version of the following article for use in the IBTC's technology outreach seminars. We thought it would be helpful to make this practical information available to everyone. Here it is:

Ameenah Lippold
Ameenah Lippold

In the twenty-first century using the computer proficiently is essential. For work, academics, and recreation we constantly find reasons to use a personal computer (the PC). We communicate through email, use Microsoft Word to create documents, use optical character recognition (OCR) to scan and print materials, play online games, and often use the computer to locate information on the Internet. But some of us are blind and cannot use a computer by viewing the screen and moving a mouse around to select functions. Methods for training sighted people to become computer literate do not work for us, so becoming a proficient computer user is a challenge for many blind people. This article will help you overcome the challenge of searching for effective computer training.

The first and most important question is how do you learn? The answer will determine which are the most effective training resources and materials for you. Everyone learns differently, so knowing your individual learning style will guide you in locating resources that meet your learning preferences. So what do I mean by "how do you learn?"

1. Do you learn best by reading user manuals by yourself with occasional contact with an expert?

2. Do you prefer guided instruction and hands-on training in a structured setting? If you prefer hands-on instruction, are you most comfortable in a one-on-one setting, or do you prefer learning with a group?

3. Finally, do you prefer your own unstructured exploration over instruction from manuals or teachers?

None of these learning styles is superior to the others. Each fits particular individuals, so you must consider the advantages and disadvantages that each presents to choose what fits you best.

If you prefer to learn by reading manuals by yourself, what reading format works best for you? Training materials are generally provided in Braille or large print, on cassette, and (more commonly) on floppy diskette or CD (also called CD-ROM). Knowing which of these formats you prefer and are able to access dictates which training manuals to search for. (Of course, if you can take advantage of several formats and media, locating training manuals is less challenging.) The advantage of this learning preference is that you control the pace and speed of what you are learning. One disadvantage is that some manuals are not written clearly and concisely. Another is that instruction by manual, simply following its plan for learning, does not always meet your instructional needs.

In contrast, in one-on-one training, although instruction is guided by your individual needs, the disadvantage is that it is often subject to variables outside your control--cost, teaching style of the instructor, other participants' time constraints, and the instructor's expertise. An advantage is that the student has assignments set by another person, which often helps students focus more than they would with no set time by which to learn a subject. The most effective way to evaluate these factors is by speaking with blind people in your community to learn more about local trainers specializing in nonvisual access technology instruction.

If you prefer learning in a group setting, while subject to the same variables as one-on-one training, learning alongside other blind people provides the big advantage that students can learn from both the instructor and each other. This mutual quest for understanding and mutual support is often helpful when studying something new. Many of us find that support from other blind people is necessary because more is involved in our training than in that needed by sighted computer students.

At first glance learning how to use a computer may seem a daunting task, but it is well worth the effort. Now that you have determined your learning style, you must consider your level of exposure to the PC. Are you a beginning, intermediate, or advanced user? While the following descriptions are not an industry-defined standard, they should assist blind computer users in assessing their computing skill and ability.

A beginning computer user is someone who has little or no experience with a PC or is generally unfamiliar with the nonvisual alternative techniques used by blind people. Lacking a real and concrete conceptual understanding of the Windows environment, the beginner is someone who uses the computer only by route navigation. This person learns a sequence of steps to carry out one task and does not know what to do if other tasks are required. Limited understanding means limited production.

In contrast, an intermediate blind computer user has a conceptual understanding of the Windows environment. This blind user is comfortable with his or her ability to navigate application menus (menus to access options to perform a specific task) and can follow on-screen prompts. At this level the user can manage files and folders, browse the Internet, and customize settings to nonvisual access technology, allowing for personalization.

In addition to all these skills, the advanced computer user is capable of taking advantage of advanced features provided by nonvisual access technology, is comfortable with performing mundane maintenance and installation procedures, and can troubleshoot through computing problems.
In the remainder of this article the emphasis will be on how to obtain adequate training for each computing level. Keep in mind that for the average blind computer user, in addition to learning the Windows environment and specific applications, he or she must also learn related nonvisual access technology commands in order to use screen-access software. Screen-access applications replace the need for seeing a monitor or using a mouse. These software applications such as JAWS for Windows from Freedom Scientific, Window-Eyes by GW Micro, and Hal from DolphinComputer Access, LLC, rely exclusively on keyboard commands to relay information and to perform screen navigation. Thus blind people must evaluate their level of proficiency in using a QWERTY computer keyboard. The other option is a Braille display to invoke commands or to read screen information.

Touch typing: self-voicing typing instruction applications (software) are available to help you improve your typing speed and keyboard familiarity. From the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), you can purchase Talking Typer for Windows for as little as $49; from De Witt and Associates you can order PC Typing Talking Tutor for as little as $99. You can request demonstration copies of both applications to determine which you like better.

Basic vocabulary: In addition to being proficient with a computer keyboard, a blind computer user must have an understanding of basic computer and Windows terminology, which is equally important. Screen-access programs and Braille displays rely on computer and Windows terminology to convey aural and tactile on-screen feedback to the blind computer user.

To learn about basic computer and Windows terminology, we recommend buying a copy of Windows XP Explained. Written by Dr. Sarah Morley and published by the National Braille Press (NBP), it is sold in electronic format, Braille, cassette, and regular and large print. In addition, accompanying large-print or tactile diagrams illustrate the way Windows XP appears visually on the screen. Another informative book is Word Wise by Sharon Monthei, also published and sold by National Braille Press in formats used by blind readers. This book explains from a blind person's perspective how to use basic to advanced features of Microsoft Word.

If you are a Braille reader, we recommend buying a copy of the "Computer Braille Code Reference Card." Created and sold by the National Braille Press, this is an excellent reference and an essential resource because it lists the associated Braille symbols for computer ASCII Braille.

Other resources for locating literature on basic computing concepts and Windows terminology are available from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) and from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). A search of both lending institutions shows that they have a plethora of Braille and recorded books on this topic. Contact your local NLS center or RFB&D for more information, and be sure to check the publishing date for any materials that interest you. Because of the rapid changes in the computer world, the more recent the publication date, the more likely the material is to contain up-to-date information.
One of the primary ways through which blind people receive group or one-on-one computer training is state vocational rehabilitation agencies operating under the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration. Every state provides technology training to clients with plans for employment. The quality of the training offered ranges from poor to excellent, depending on the level of commitment in the individual state services. Investigate the efficacy of the technology training provided in your state by speaking with other blind individuals in your local community. Even if the training does not meet all of your needs and expectations, it is another avenue, and it can be supplemented with other training resources, once you know that supplementation is needed.

Finally, a possible resource for technology training and instruction is blind individuals in your local chapter or state affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind or unaffiliated blind people in your local community. Blind people who already know how to use computers well are a great resource, because who knows better how to use a computer with access technology than experienced blind users?

Screen-access technology: Once you feel confident in your keyboarding skills, understanding of computing concepts, and Windows terminology, it is time to move on to screen-access programs. If you are a beginning computer user, in addition to the sources listed above, we strongly recommend that you seek instruction in using the computer with nonvisual techniques. Few people are successful in learning these skills on their own.

Using the screen-access program of your choice, you should become comfortable in navigating the computer desktop, opening applications, and managing files and folders. You should be able to create, save, open, and retrieve documents. In order to write and edit, you should be able to move around a Microsoft Word document, perform editing and basic formatting of text, and use the spell-check feature. Once you master these tasks, you can move on to retrieving and sending email. You should be able to perform all of these tasks by navigating the application menus and not solely by keyboard shortcuts. As for Internet navigation, you should be able to open and navigate a Web page, perform basic Internet searches, fill out forms, and download files.

The three best known screen-access application vendors--Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, and Dolphin Computer Access--offer training classes in using their screen-access products. Other well-known providers, including De Witt and Associates, Project ASSIST from the Iowa Department for the Blind, and Crisscross Technologies, offer training as well. Training curricula are designed to provide instruction in the use of specific applications, primarily in Microsoft Office and Internet navigation. While these training curricula can be costly, they are generally well worth the time, effort, and money. Contact individual providers to learn more about the training classes they offer and whether training is onsite, by telephone, on cassette or CD, on the Internet, or by some combination of these formats.

Internet-based training is appealing and cost effective but requires access to a PC. However, online training can potentially offer advanced training in the Microsoft Office suite of applications, which includes Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint, all of which provide advanced features and functionality for increased productivity.

As you progress in your computer training, you will find it is impossible and unnecessary to know every feature of each application. When you move into the advanced level, be clear about what tasks are essential to function in your day-to-day life. For example, if you are a college student, besides knowing the basics of Microsoft Word, you need to know how to create footnotes and endnotes and how to insert objects such as graphs, images, pictures, etc., into your documents. If you are working in a professional environment that relies on Outlook not only for email but also for scheduling, task management, and maintaining contacts, learning Outlook should be your primary focus.

Fixed and mobile: As an advanced blind computer user, you will likely consider using one of the many accessible notetakers or accessible pocket PC devices in conjunction with your desktop computer. This configuration allows mobility and increased productivity. If you need to be away from your computer and you want access to your documents, calendar, contacts, and email, it is now possible to share and synchronize data by using your mobile computing device. This solution offers blind people the ability to work in a note-taking or mobile computer environment customized for the blind computer user and simultaneously share data and communicate with sighted peers. Mobile computing devices are becoming the next generation of computing hardware for sighted users, and it is important that blind users progress technologically with our sighted peers.

The impact of computers and their effect on our society is inescapable. As nonvisual access technology advances, the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC), a service of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, is committed to keeping you abreast of new developments. Contact or visit the IBTC for reference and referral services and an unbiased opinion on nonvisual access technology. Included in this commitment is ensuring that blind individuals are aware of and are receiving quality training.

Resource List

American Printing House for the Blind (APH), 1839 Frankfort Avenue, P.O. Box 6085, Louisville, Kentucky 40206; phone (502) 895-2405; (800) 223-1839; fax (502) 899-2274; Web site <>; email <>

CrissCross Technologies, 110-64 Queens Boulevard, Suite 406, Forest Hills, New York 11375; phone (718) 268-6988; Web site <>; email <>

DeWitt & Associates, 700 Godwin Avenue, Suite 110, Midland Park, New Jersey 07432; phone (201) 447-6500; fax (201) 447-1187; Web site <>; email <>

Dolphin Computer Access LLC, 60 East Third Avenue, Suite 130, San Mateo, California 94401; phone (650) 348-7401; toll free (866) 797-5921; fax (650) 348-7403; Web site <>; email <>

Freedom Scientific, Blind/Low Vision Group, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, Florida 33716-1805; phone (800) 444-4443; (727) 803-8000; fax (727) 803-8001; tech support for all products (727) 803-8600; Web site <>; email <>

GW Micro, 725 Airport North Office Park, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46825; phone (260) 489-3671; fax (260) 489-2608; Web site <>; email <>

National Braille Press (NBP), 88 St. Stephen Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02115; phone (617) 266-6160; (800) 548-7323; fax (617) 437-0456; Web site <>; email <>

National Federation of the Blind (NFB), 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230; phone (410) 659-9314, option 5 for the technology answer line; Web site <>; email <>

National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science c/o Curtis Chong, 3000 Grand Avenue, Apt. 916, Des Moines, Iowa 50312; phone (515) 277-1288; email <>

International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC), National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230; phone (410) 659-9314; Web site: <>

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, 1291 Taylor Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20542; phone (202) 707-5100; (800) 424-8567; fax (202) 707-0712; Web site <>; email <>

Project ASSIST with Windows, c/o Iowa Department for the Blind, 524 Fourth Street, Des Moines, Iowa 50309-2364; phone (515) 281-1357; Web site <>; email <>

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), 20 Roszel Road, Princeton, New Jersey 08540; phone (609) 452-0606; (800) 221-4792; fax (609) 987-8116; Web site <http://www.RFB&>; email <custserv@RFB&>