by Curtis Chong
From the Editor: Many of us who have used the Internet have heard of Skype, and some may have been enthusiastically invited by their friends to join them in using it. The program is a way to talk with friends and associates free of charge, and its high-quality audio often rivals even the clearest telephone connections. Some of us have avoided plunging into Skype because it has required one to be a proficient user of a screen-reading program and even then has often required modifications to work efficiently. Curtis Chong, the president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, writes to say that an offering from GW Micro has changed the world for blind Skype users. Here are his enthusiastic comments:
In 2003 the Skype™ client was released, and since then people around the world have used this software for high-quality voice conversations between people using Skype on computers, reliable file transfers between computers, video conversations, and even telephone conversations between Skype computer users and people using conventional telephones. Over the years a lot of blind people have also used Skype, but unlike our sighted peers we have had to wrestle with the Windows Skype client to get it to do what we wanted because the Skype client has never worked very well with our screen-access technology. Also, as new releases of the Skype client have emerged, the user interface has changed so much that some people have been compelled to develop specialized scripts to improve their ability to use the program.
In 2011 GW Micro, makers of the Window-Eyes screen-access program, decided to create a simple, elegant, fully accessible interface to Skype. This was made possible because of the developer kit released by Skype. Now we have GWConnect, a program that is fully accessible to computer users running nonvisual screen-access programs. Even better, GWConnect will remain accessible, regardless of what Skype decides to do with its Skype client software; simply put, you don't need Skype software to use GWConnect. All you need is a good screen-access program such as Window-Eyes or JAWS for Windows.
What can you do with GWConnect? You can use the GWConnect program to talk with other Skype users and to make telephone calls (for a fee) in the fifty states. While engaged in a phone call, you can enter numbers with the computer's number row keys to respond to voice prompts (as in automated banking systems). In my experience GWConnect is also a great tool for reading newspapers on NFB-NEWSLINE®. For a very small fee you can use GWConnect to send text messages to mobile phone users who are able to accept them. You can also engage in text chats with other Skype users. With GWConnect you can search the Skype system for other Skype users and add them to your contact list. Everything is fully accessible as long as you are running a screen-access program. You cannot currently use GWConnect to participate in a Skype video conversation.
How much does it cost? The GWConnect program is provided as a free download to anyone who wants to use it. If you are running GW Micro's Window-Eyes screen-access program while using GWConnect, you will not receive pop-up advertisements. If you are running another screen-access program, occasional advertisements will be announced. If you don't want to hear any advertisements, you can pay $49.99 per year for a GWConnect authorization key.
Why GWConnect? As I said earlier, GWConnect works extremely well with a variety of screen-access programs for the blind. Even when updates are released, the program continues to work, and the user interface does not change. On the other hand, with the Skype client for Windows, I was extremely wary of any new updates because my past experience with the program had demonstrated that new updates would often make it less usable with my screen-access program.
I am fairly certain that my personal experience with Skype is not unique. I am also fairly certain that, once a lot of blind people begin using GWConnect, they will like it. Kudos to GW Micro for making this available to the blind community.