by Robert Kingett
From the Editor: Robert Kingett is a film critic, performing arts critic, and motivational speaker living in Chicago. He has cerebral palsy, is blind, and is a technology enthusiast. The screen-reading program he reviews is quite impressive. It is fast and easy to use and comes at no cost to blind people, although donations are requested for its support. As a former computer programmer I feel strongly that it is just as important to compensate intellectual activity as it is physical effort. I also believe that, when we are asking for specialized software and hardware, our small numbers will likely require some additional cost to meet our needs. Nevertheless, I have left in Robert’s comments that make it clear he believes most screen readers are significantly overpriced and beyond the ability of many blind people and the agencies that serve them to purchase. Here is what he says:
The constant search for equal access has plagued my life even though I live in a day and age when technology and digital material are ubiquitous. I remember the computer classes in high school back in 2006, where I’d wonder why schools for the blind such as mine didn't have the latest versions of the screen readers on the market. I understood the reason after looking at the price of the screen reader my school used called Window-Eyes, developed by GW Micro. I didn't understand about industry prices, so I felt what they call sticker shock at the individual price for blind people to use computers to do our schoolwork. $1,250 was, in many cases, equal to the cost of the actual computer used to run the screen reader and far in excess of most other software we were using.
Thinking there must be an alternative, I wondered why my school didn’t turn to Freedom Scientific. With a bit of research on my part, I was sadly surprised to find that its screen-reading software cost $895, still quite expensive from my point of view. I couldn’t understand why blind people had to pay such a high price just to look at a screen, something that sighted people did every day without any money out of their pocket.
I didn't see either of these commercial alternatives as practical, so I turned to a Google search to seek out a free screen reader. I found one that I happily use today, the free, open source screen reader developed by NV Access, called NVDA—Non-visual Desktop Access. NVDA is the most feature-rich free screen reader that I have found. This software is updated frequently as evidenced by its publicly available list of changes and enhancements.
Providing feedback through synthetic speech and Braille, NVDA allows blind and visually impaired people to access and interact with the Windows operating system and many third-party applications. I was immediately hooked and soon began installing NVDA everywhere that I could—on my school’s laptops, on my desktop at home, and even on a USB flash drive in case I needed to use a computer at the library. Now, for the first time, I didn’t have to worry about computers having JAWS or Window-Eyes. I had accessibility in my pocket.
One impressive fact about NVDA is its support for multiple languages. I have a firm belief that it is important that people anywhere in the world, no matter what language they speak, get equal access to technology. Besides English, NVDA has been translated into thirty-six languages, including Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Thai, Traditional and Simplified Chinese, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.
In addition to providing its messages and its interface in many languages, NVDA also enables users to read content in any language, as long as they have speech synthesizers that can speak that language. NVDA is bundled with eSpeak, a free, open-source, multi-lingual speech synthesizer. Additionally, it can use both SAPI 4 and SAPI 5 speech engines to provide speech output, and with an add-on NVDA can now speak with the ETI-Eloquence synthesizer.
Governmental and private rehabilitation agencies for the blind have traditionally had to purchase expensive screen-access software, but, when I was asked if I wanted a commercial screen reader, I said no. I believe that accessibility should be inclusive and not determined by one’s financial status. I've been a user of NVDA for many years, and the one thing that really attracts me to this screen reader is that it is not driven by profit, nor is it constrained by a need to follow market trends and demands. This allows for the freedom to research, experiment with, and implement new and innovative techniques to improve accessibility for blind and visually impaired users, as well as enabling features desirable to minorities within the blind community that aren’t met by commercial offerings.
Since NVDA debuted in 2006, it has blossomed into a fluid and efficient screen reader, now complete with user-created add-on support developed both by NV Access and by the community. This means that contributions to its evolution can come from anyone who knows how to program. Any blind person with a Windows-based computer can use NVDA because it runs on both 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems starting with Microsoft Windows XP and continuing through Windows 8. NVDA has no additional hardware requirements and needs only fifty megabytes of disk space. Since NVDA doesn't rely on any specially installed display driver to retrieve information, this gives it an advantage over several of the traditional screen readers, which install software that sometimes conflicts with factory-provided software and hardware. When one is using Mozilla applications, NVDA improves the reading flow. The wide range of screen-reading settings in the options menu is a nice touch, and so are the easily accessible menus that don't overburden computer resources. The best news of all is that, if you use the portable NVDA release on a USB stick, your voices and settings travel with you, so you can make any computer your own by simply inserting your flash drive.
When people ask about NVDA, they are often interested in how it compares to JAWS for Windows. As originally packaged, NVDA possesses fewer features than JAWS, but a quick search query using “NVDA add-ons” in Google will present free opportunities to expand NVDA’s capabilities. Add-ons give NVDA the ability to use optical character recognition (OCR), to track changes in Microsoft Word, to use the popular Team Viewer software for sharing screens and keyboards with other users, and to track weather around the world without the difficulty of navigating websites that are not user-friendly for screen reader users. Two websites that offer add-ons are: http://stormdragon.us/nvda/ and http://addons.nvda-project.org/.
Using NVDA isn't hard at all. For the most part it uses the JAWS for Windows desktop keyboard layout. However, in a recent update, support for laptop keyboards has changed, and those who prefer the traditional desktop keyboard experience should not use it.
Since NVDA is receiving sponsorship from Mozilla Corporation and Adobe Systems, NVDA works best using those platforms, but it is quite flexible. It works just fine with Internet Explorer. The instant messengers that NVDA works with out of the box are Yahoo! Messenger and Miranda IM, a small, universal instant messenger client. Microsoft Office compatibility is quite good, with support for PowerPoint, Word, Excel, and all other suites.
Of course, as with most open-source software, you get what you put into it. Users who want to have more features included in the next release should donate to the project and should make known the features they want to see in the next version. NVDA has traditionally upgraded three times a year, with over twenty new enhancements and thirty bug fixes in each release, all heavily detailed in a revision history. While NVDA doesn't have as many document formatting detection features as the most current release of JAWS 14, I'm sure that, with programmers and scripters who are enthusiastic about creating the newest and best, someone will incorporate these features into the upcoming releases of NVDA.
Obviously NVDA’s strength is customization that is community driven, but it isn't without its faults. If you’re a low-vision user like me and you choose to turn off NVDA while using Internet Explorer, turning it back on again will cause your session to crash, and you will once again have to navigate to the Internet site and page you were using.
A few years ago, while I was listening to a podcast about inclusion and accessibility, I dreamed of a day when we would have universal PC accessibility. For a while I believed that equal access on a Windows machine could never happen. I believed that we Windows users would simply have to envy people who were rich enough to afford Macs. NVDA gives the Windows user screen access without the need to spend hundreds of dollars on adaptive software, and shows that the needs of users can actually drive the development of screen access software.
NVDA isn't the perfect solution for everyone, and it isn't as feature-rich in functionality as other screen readers on the market today, but it's my top pick. I am so sold on this program that I have every computer at my college’s computer lab equipped with NVDA. It has saved the school a few dollars, and it opens up many doors for new blind students who attend there.A few years ago equal and affordable access was something I only dreamed about, but today, thanks to NVDA, I can enjoy the world that has been opened to me by services such as Bookshare, Learning Ally, and NLS BARD. If I ever need to remind myself of those long ago days when we had to beg our state rehabilitation agency for the blind to pay a huge sum of money just so we could write a college essay, all I have to do is reach down into my pocket and curl my fingers around a flash drive that, through the determination of a few developers, harnesses the technology to allow me to walk up to any Windows PC, even at a library, and show the world what universal computer accessibility really means.