Windows 95: Removing the Screen
by Peter M. Scialli, Ph.D.

From the Editor: I have vivid recollections of walking around the 1986 National Convention with a sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach. That year I must have born some spiritual resemblance to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner as I clutched at every computer user of my acquaintance to demand pointers for getting started with that fearsome machine. When I returned to work in mid-July, I was to begin using an AT&T personal computer hooked up to the Alumni Affairs mainframe computer at Oberlin College. With a talking box and this combination of computers I was to become the first professional in the Alumni Office to work extensively on the new technology. Instinctively I knew that my working life would never be the same; I just hoped I would survive the experience.

I count myself incredibly lucky that during the following year our office employed a temporary secretary to substitute for one who was in Germany on sabbatical with her husband. Bob was a new Oberlin graduate who was staying in town for a year while his fiancee finished her degree. Though he had been an English major, he was extremely gifted in and curious about computers. He found my speech-recognition software and hardware interesting and a challenge to his orderly mind. He liked the fact that I could either work on my PC or log onto the mainframe. When I managed to crash my system, he didn't panic; he walked me through correcting the problem. When my system stopped speaking, he was patience itself in coming to read the screen; and, using questions rather than instructions, he taught me how to get myself out of my messes and prevent them in the future.

Gradually I learned to use the various word-processing programs available to me, the other mainframe programs we used to manage the alumni database, and enough about the Disk Operating System (DOS) to move around and do what I needed to. I don't know what I would have done without Bob. No one else in the college— and that included the entire Computer Center staff—knew a thing about screen-reading software. The equipment and software more than a decade ago were rudimentary compared to today's powerful systems, but there were times when I thought my head would explode with the new concepts and skills I was forced to master and use.

Years of marching along on the shifting sands of evolving computer technology have taught me that we look back to whatever is old and familiar as easy and relatively simple. Today, as we contemplate the prospect of coping with Windows 95, 97, 98, and who knows what further demanding office products, we are tempted to look back at DOS as the good old days when computers were simple. Those early programs were undoubtedly simpler, but they were not simple to us. We mastered them and came to love their clarity as revealed to us by the speech software developed to deal with them. But they were always a challenge, one that, with the help of gifted programmers in the access-technology field, we met successfully.

Dr. Peter Scialli is by training a clinical psychologist who became interested in computers in connection with his research and work as a psychologist. He has now established Shrink Wrap Computer Products, a company that assembles computer systems and develops tutorials helping blind people use commercially available programs. Dr. Scialli has a refreshingly optimistic outlook about the ability of blind people to use today's computer software. However, his views may be a little too rosy in some respects.

Curtis Chong, President of the NFB in Computer Science, tells me that Lotus Notes for Windows still requires the help of a reader if a blind person wants to use the program. I can personally testify to the frustrations of trying to get a screen reader for Windows to provide information about layout in preparing a document in Word. Things that DOS-based screen-readers volunteered as a matter of course are deeply held secrets withheld from blind users in Windows 95.

Nonetheless, Dr. Scialli's attitude and approach to today's software are positive and encouraging. But remember that he is a bright and experienced user of speech- and Braille-access software, and he understands the Windows products well enough to write tutorials for our use. His knowledge is hard won, and the rest of us will stumble along behind him, often cursing the technology that is changing our lives even while we bless him and his kind for breaking trail for us. Here is what Dr. Scialli has to say:

For the past few years the consensus among people who are blind has been that the Graphical User Interface (GUI) was designed for the exclusive benefit of the sighted, its principal advantage being a pleasing and easy to navigate visual presentation of complex material. While visual appeal is certainly an important part of the advances in PC technology, it does not begin to cover the many other features that technology has provided to the desktop computer user.

Indeed among many blind computer users in the late 1990's, there is a feeling of panic and despair about the continuing usefulness of the technology, which has heretofore helped greatly to break down barriers to productivity and equality in school and the workplace. Unfortunately these feelings have been echoed and amplified by rehabilitation instructors, teachers, employers, and others whom blind people sometimes rely upon for guidance in making school or workplace adaptations. The purpose of this presentation is to clarify the nature of the graphical user interface and to discuss the often disregarded advantages of modern PC operating systems for productive work by people who are blind.

The Graphical User Interface found on modern computer operating systems is popular because, in more ways than in the past, what individuals see on their computer screens mimics what they see in the world around them. The symbols that make up the world at large are now available right on the PC desktop system. This, paradoxically, is good news for blind computer users. Blind people have been dealing effectively with the world at large for centuries. They have been doing so with various forms of alternative access. Every blind person who has achieved excellence alongside sighted peers has used an alternative access technique. As computer operating systems have advanced, so have technological solutions to the access issues thus produced.

The problems that remain are no more or less catastrophic then those which remain for blind people in general. Blind people still can't see colors on a computer screen, just as they can't see them anyplace else. Blind people need a description of a pictorial representation of an object on computer monitors, just as they do anyplace else, and so on. Blindness does not offer any more special disadvantages when dealing with computers than it does when dealing with taking a trip to the local store to buy a carton of milk. Both situations require familiarity with the environment and methods for dealing with graphical representations of important information, methods of following rules, and methods of demonstrating success.

The key in these or other routine tasks is that the blind individual receive proper training and practice in an effective set of alternative techniques. For example, a blind pedestrian must understand the nature of traffic patterns and the consequences of arguing with a truck. Similarly, a blind computer user should possess a proper understanding of what the computer is telling him or her and the consequences of interacting in various ways with the machine.

One may ask why a blind person must learn new alternative computer skills when the text-based operating systems of the past have served well with relatively little special training. While it is true that text-based operating systems such as Microsoft's Disk Operating System (DOS) provided a relatively simple interface for everyone, it is also true that in addition to falling into wide disuse generally, text-based systems have an extremely limited capacity to take advantage of advancing hardware technology. Many blind people think erroneously that their productivity will remain high as long as they can stay with the familiar computing environment.

Depending on the level of productivity required for a given academic or career path, those who adhere firmly to the use of text-based operating systems from the past are not necessarily at a disadvantage. The text-based computers and computer applications that support them are no less useful today than they were ten or fifteen years ago. If a person needs only, for example, to produce competent written material, a word processor from 1986 will likely provide the appropriate level of service. If, on the other hand, a blind person wants to produce a highly formatted document with multiple columns, graphics, and a variety of colors, the older text-editing application will not do the job.

What are the advantages of learning to work in a modern operating environment? The obvious answer to this question is that modern operating systems and the hardware that supports them permit the use of techniques not previously available. Multitasking, multimedia, and memory management are some examples of modern computing techniques with special value to blind computer users; these will be discussed later. Of greater importance than the technical ability to use current computing tools is the necessity for blind people to produce excellent work in a competitive environment.

One need not look far to find blind people performing jobs adequately through the use of computers. An alarming number of these people are working in competitive environments in which they are not expected to excel. Employers often believe that the Americans with Disabilities Act compels them to hire disabled people who possess only a limited ability to produce the work expected of them. Quite often blind people seeking employment believe that, if the employer merely provides a talking computer which uses a text-based operating system, an accommodation has been made. It is all too easy to lose sight of the quality of the work being done by one's fellow, non-accommodated employees. Moreover, when a blind employee is using an accommodation to achieve results that are only satisfactory, the employer is likely to disregard the employee's advancement potential as non-existent. Observing that the employee apparently requires the use of antiquated and unsupported tools, the employer will never view her or him as able to handle innovative projects and will see the blind person as unpromotable.

What then are the special features of GUI-based operating systems that benefit blind people? Largely they are the same features which benefit the sighted user, who ironically may appreciate them less due to the diversion of an entertaining user interface. For the blind, standardization plays an important role in the increased utility of modern operating systems. In particular there is a tendency for one Windows application to look and act like another. While there are always exceptions, the Microsoft guidelines encourage computer applications generally to use similar controls. For example, almost every Windows 95 application installation uses the Microsoft Install Shield Wizard, which guides the end-user through nearly identical steps each time an application is installed. Almost every modern application uses a standard implementation of pulldown menus and dialogues, which enable any user to make some helpful assumptions about how application controls are to be approached and how they will act.

Contrast this to many MS-DOS applications produced in the early to mid 1990's. In an effort to lend an appealing Windows-like user interface to a DOS application, programmers often used creative methods of achieving a particular screen result. Screen-access software intended for use by the visually impaired had no premise for expecting or dealing with graphical elements incorporated into an application idiosyncratically. Contrast this with the standard element classes that are used in the modern operating systems for which screen-access software has a basis for reporting the screen to the end-user through speech or Braille output. While a blind end-user may experience some initial consternation about the layout of a GUI screen, the labeling of graphics is a standard technique for making useful information about the contents of the screen continuously available.

No less important than the standardization of the screen output is the standardization of the computer's keyboard input. Since it is unlikely that a blind computer end-user will use a mouse, it is necessary to find some other way to communicate commands to the machine. Microsoft Windows systems do just this. Because the functions of many keyboard keys and key combinations are standard, it is now easier than ever before for a blind end-user to approach an unfamiliar or difficult application. For example, the combination of the Alt key and the F4 key invariably commands a Windows application to cancel the current task or dialog. The combination of the Control key and the F10 key will always open a Context Menu where one is available. Similarly the F1 key will almost always enter an application's Help System for context-sensitive information about a current task or dialog.

Contrast these maneuvers with many of the more common applications from Microsoft DOS. There were usually standards within a family of products, such as those from WordPerfect Corporation, but there was rarely agreement across software brands about how an installation would be performed or how an application would be controlled. Even those DOS programs which had a Windows-like appearance often did not include keyboard commands for control. They were designed for the mouse and the illusion of Windows standardization.

Blind computer users frequently believe that file management can be best performed under MS-DOS or under DOS emulation by a modern operating system. This may in fact be true, assuming that the user knows the complete DOS path names leading to files of interest and the exact spelling and possible embedded punctuation of such file names. Compare this to Windows 95, in which folders, files, and applications are organized into lists according to function. A user need only pick from a list of options using one of the keyboard commands described previously. This has the potential to improve drastically the efficiency with which a blind person uses a computer.

What about multitasking? The conventional wisdom is that, since a blind person can perform only one task at a time, an operating system such as DOS which enforces this approach to computing does not reduce efficiency. But multitasking applies to the ability of the end-user not only to engage in more than one application at a time but to execute technical computing goals. For example, many are familiar with the need imposed by DOS-based computers to configure and test separately the addressing of peripheral hardware devices in each application. Thus each word processor or text editor must be able to communicate with a particular printer; each application must be independently aware and able to work with a particular modem; and so on. Modern operating systems remove this burden from everyone. Even special peripheral devices such as scanners and Braille embossers can usually be depended upon to work with all the applications running under the same GUI. Surely this represents an increase in efficiency for the blind worker.

A fully sighted person, while possibly using visual cues to remain aware of what is happening in the background of a computer system's operating environment, is not likely to be performing two distinct tasks simultaneously. The blind computer user benefits equally in using the computer for many simultaneous tasks. For example, the blind computer user is free to update information continuously in a spreadsheet application with data from the Internet. Similarly he or she can instruct the computer to perform recognition on a group of scanned pages while using a word processor to create new documents which may reference those being worked on by other processes. This compares favorably with the text-based method previously employed by blind computer users, which involved performing one task at a time, saving the work each time to a known specific file name, exiting an application, starting a new application, retrieving the file previously created, and so on.

A sighted computer user can switch tasks quickly and easily by using his mouse to point to a task of interest and clicking. The click brings the task to the forefront of the computer screen and to the forefront of the operator's attention. Happily a parallel situation works well for a blind person using speech or Braille-access. A task can be instantly called to the forefront of one's attention by simply hitting a hot-key command, which switches the access software's focus to another running task. Users who have not specifically defined hot keys for getting from one task to another can use the Windows standard Alt-plus-Tab-key combination to view the running tasks serially. Unique sounds can even be attached to various tasks to identify what is happening. The blind user thus enjoys the full benefit of an extremely powerful tool which never existed under older operating systems.

What are the barriers which keep many blind people from using modern operating systems? Sadly, the blind themselves have fallen into an all too familiar pattern of assuming that they are unable to learn and use that which seems to be tailor-made for the sighted. With blind students and employees giving their teachers and bosses the message that modern computers are inaccessible, there is no shortage of opinion once again that blind people may at best perform only adequate work. Since almost everyone agrees that computers will become increasingly widespread and increasingly complex, those who believe that blind workers must use tools dating back ten years or more will not encourage and educate the blind in the use of the tools of the modern workplace. As a group blind people are seriously at risk of facing bare subsistence in the new millennium. As all but the most menial tasks begin to use computers, it is increasingly the blind themselves who are telling the world that those are the only tasks they are capable of performing.

It is time that the blind insist upon receiving the training required for functioning as leaders in the twenty-first century. No special barriers keep the blind from using modern computers and thus holding modern jobs.