Braille Monitor January 2008
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by Clara Van Gerven
As life expectancy in the world goes up, so does the number of people who have age-related eye diseases such as macular degeneration and cataracts. Globally, for every blind person there are about 3.4 people who have low vision1. Because many people suffering from these diseases begin losing their vision later in life, learning blindness techniques, or even accepting blindness, presents a significant hurdle. At age seventy, eighty, or even ninety, changing the habits of a lifetime is not easy; however, with motivation it is possible for many to make the transition successfully. Seniors facing vision loss, with low vision often turning into blindness over the years, need the benefits of access technology to improve their quality of life.
Because many seniors are unfamiliar with computers and often dislike using them, complex, often Braille-based solutions like notetakers are frequently not an option. Many older people use CCTVs for magnification. These use a camera to show a magnified picture of the image or text under the camera. But users often suffer from eye fatigue as a result. A CCTV does not offer any long-term benefit to people who suffer from degenerative eye diseases. This group, among others, can really benefit from screen-magnification programs for the computer.
Screen magnifiers offer some of the benefits of low-vision products, but they combine these with some of the benefits of blindness technology. All of the major screen magnifiers in the U.S. offer optional speech along with magnification, allowing the consumer to use magnification for navigation and speech for more intensive tasks such as reading blocks of text. Like screen-access software, screen magnifiers allow the user the option of using keyboard shortcuts instead of mouse navigation. Perhaps the most important feature of screen-magnification programs, however, is that their basic functions are very easy to use. The user interface is usually simple and self-explanatory, though the functionality is often sophisticated. Any easy user interface lowers the threshold for those who are not familiar with access technology and are unwilling to invest a lot of time in learning it.
While the speech option in a screen-magnifier package cannot offer the full functions of screen-access software, screen magnifiers allow users to use their vision, when doing so is more efficient, while familiarizing themselves with synthetic speech and keyboard shortcuts, thereby making the transition to nonvisual access technology easier.
Three of the most popular screen magnifiers in the U.S. are ZoomText, MAGic, and SuperNova. The versions I looked at were ZoomText 9.1, MAGic 10.5, and SuperNova 8.01, the most recent releases of each of these products. All testing was done in Windows XP Professional, SP2. ZoomText 9.1 and SuperNova 8.01 also support Vista; MAGic 10.5 does not.
While every new version of a screen magnifier brings new features, it is important to keep in mind that most users are concerned with only a limited number of features: most typically basic magnification, pointer enhancement, color schemes, and speech for reading longer texts. This article focuses on these basic features.
ZoomText is a popular magnification solution, and it is not hard to see why; its straightforward user interface and intuitive controls make it a singularly easy to use piece of software. The drop-down lists of color schemes, styles, pointer and cursor enhancements, and so forth on its controls let users easily switch between preferences in different contexts. The magnification level increases up to 16 times, by 0.25 between 1x and 2x, by 0.5 between 2x and 3x, and by 1x after that. Custom settings are easily saved, either as default or as one of a number, in the File menu.
ZoomText's new dual monitor support will be useful in some professional contexts, but it is unlikely to affect the user experience significantly. It is the strength of ZoomText's basic features that make it such a successful product. The App Reader and Doc Reader functions, which read the text in any application or document while highlighting the word being read, are simple and cater to the speech function the low-vision user is most likely to need and want.
SuperNova, produced by the British company, Dolphin, and popular in Europe, offers significantly broader functionality than the other two magnification programs, including support for refreshable Braille displays and full-featured screen access software. Its interface, however, is significantly more complex and harder to navigate. First-level options, such as the “Additional” button on the interface, display a number of options that are less than intuitive, such as “Lock aspect” or “Show hooked areas,” which the user will have to research before being able to use. That said, the program is very efficient in use once set up--its default setting is to save the settings last used, unlike the two other programs, making it the easy-to-do basic customization one, if the program is being used by only one person. Moreover, it allows the user to choose whether or not to display fractional magnification between 1x and 4x, which makes it faster to switch between settings.
A useful feature of SuperNova is its pen drive version. With the pen drive users are able to use their screen magnifier on any computer by installing an authorization file from the pen drive onto that computer the first time they use it. The flexibility of having truly portable magnification software available will appeal to users who need to work on different computers. However, the consumer will need to consider the security on the computer he or she will be using because a user may not be able to copy files onto a given computer. Like ZoomText’s, MAGic (Freedom Scientific’s user interface) is easy to use, and the speech function in MAGic benefits from having the development of JAWS (the screen-access software from the same company) behind it. When it comes to color scheme changes, this is less obvious than it is in the other two programs, because the user must right-click the control to display the list of options, which may initially lead an inexperienced user to think that he or she can only switch between the normal view and the Freedom Scientific factory settings. If the consumer uses one color scheme only, however, MAGic offers the fastest method of switching back and forth between normal view and the color scheme chosen.
MAGic, ZoomText, and SuperNova all allow users to download a demo of their product, and potential buyers certainly benefit from this option, because small differences are often significant to individual users since needs vary from person to person and often change over time. The screen magnifiers discussed here are all good options; the basic use of these programs is not, all in all, very different. The choice a user makes comes down to personal preference, and the demo downloads are a great tool for consumers to use to work out beforehand which solution is best for them.
Screen magnifiers are an excellent example of a technology that uses aspects of both low-vision and blindness access technology without complicating the product. They are an excellent way for people with low vision to acquaint themselves with the nonvisual methods in a way that is not intimidating and that allows the person to use vision more efficiently.
As mentioned in the presidential report delivered at the NFB convention in 2007, our International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind has a range of low-vision devices for public demonstration. For further information on low-vision technology, contact Clara Van Gerven at (410) 659-9314, ext. 2410, or <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
The contact information and pricing details for the products mentioned above are listed below. Please note that pricing varies according to version.
To purchase MAGic, contact Freedom Scientific, (800) 444-4443 (within the U.S.); <www.freedomscientific.com>.
To purchase SuperNova, contact Dolphin Computer Access Inc., (866) 797-5921; <www.dolphinusa.com>.
To purchase ZoomText, contact Ai Squared, (800) 859-0270; <www.aisquared.com>.
1 See World Health Organization Fact Sheet nr.282 at <http://www.who.int/mediaentre/factsheets/fs282/en>.