by Curtis Chong
During the past six months I took it upon myself to learn how to use the Mac computer and the built-in VoiceOver program which makes this computer accessible to the blind. I did this because, as a part of my job, I am often asked to provide training and information to blind seniors who, accustomed to using the Mac computer with a mouse, now want to use this computer with the built-in VoiceOver program due to significantly reduced vision.
Like many of my blind colleagues, I have used Windows computers for many years, and because of this experience, I have been able to write letters and articles, send and read email, and find information on the Web—all without sighted assistance. I have also learned to deal with the frustrations that seem to go along with the Windows computers we use today, and I have reconciled myself to paying a few hundred dollars now and then to keep my screen-access technology up to date.
As I have learned more about the Mac, its operating system (the latest version of which happens to be called OS X Mavericks), and VoiceOver, I have tried to understand the differences and similarities between these two different technologies. I have read a number of articles extolling the virtues of the Mac, and while I understand that for some people it has offered a sense of confidence and independence that they might not have enjoyed with a Windows computer, I am not prepared to say at this point that every blind person should abandon Windows in favor of the Mac. What I am prepared to say is that each platform has its own set of strengths and weaknesses and that the choice of which to use will be determined by individual circumstance. In my case although I am confident in my ability to use the Mac to write a properly-formatted article, send and receive email, and find information over the Internet, I am not ready to replace my Windows computer with a Mac. The financial investment is simply too high, and my work habits too engrained. This is not to say that no one should ever contemplate abandoning his/her Windows system in favor of the Mac. It is only to say that this is my decision and that it is made with a full understanding on my part of the tasks that I wish to accomplish with the computer and the money and effort I am willing to invest to convert to a new system.
Technical purists will probably take exception to my blanket use of the term "Mac." Therefore, to keep things as technically accurate as possible from this point forward, I will refer to the Mavericks operating system instead of the Mac computer.
Before discussing how Windows and Mavericks systems differ from each other, I do think that I need to make one important point here. Regardless of what kind of technology we use at home, most of the people who work in offices today use Windows computers along with Microsoft Office programs such as Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Regardless of whether we decide to use the Mavericks operating system at home, it is highly likely that our jobs will require us to use Windows along with the Microsoft Office suite. Therefore, people who decide to adopt Mavericks for their own personal use will likely, out of necessity, find themselves proficient with both systems.
The first difference you will notice right away when comparing Mavericks to its Windows counterpart is price. Computers running Mavericks tend to cost more, but then, the hardware seems to be of a higher quality. While you can probably find a Windows laptop for around $500, the least expensive MacBook Air I have found starts at $899.
All Mavericks systems have a built-in spell checker and dictionary, which are available to you no matter what application you choose to use. On a Windows system you might be able to use a spell checker for programs such as Word or Outlook, but the spell checker is certainly not available to you if you choose to run the free WordPad program. There is certainly no free dictionary built into Windows.
In Windows, the free WordPad program can be used to create a nice-looking document. However, WordPad does not come with its own spellchecker. In the Mavericks system Text Edit is a powerful (and free) word processing program. It has more power than WordPad, and for many writing tasks, it does a very nice job. Text Edit might not be able to generate a college-level paper complete with references and footnotes, but in the Mavericks world you can buy a program called Pages to do this, and you don't have to spend a couple hundred dollars to get it.
In a Windows system each program you use will have its own menu bar, which contains things like the File Menu, Edit Menu, View Menu, etc. In fact some programs that you might run on a Windows system may not have a menu bar at all. Mavericks, on the other hand, has one menu bar which is shared by all of the programs you are running. This menu bar changes as you switch your attention between programs, and regardless of what program you are working with, you can always get to the menu bar.
In Windows the technical details of the operating system are easily exposed—even to the nontechnical user. In the Windows world it is not uncommon for the average user to have to deal with things like the "system registry," "disk defragmentation," and "temporary files." On a Windows computer when you want to change something in the system, you must go to the "Control Panel." If you want to look at drives, files, and folders, you go to something called "Windows Explorer."
In Mavericks it is not common for the average user to see any of the technical details of the operating system. If you want to make changes to the system, you go to something called "System Preferences," which sounds a lot less technical than "Control Panel." If you want to manage drives, files, and folders, you use a program called "Finder."
In Windows drives are assigned letters like "C:", "D:", etc. In the Mavericks world drives have names like "MAC HD" or simply "My Hard Drive."
Voiceover is the speech program that makes Mavericks usable by the blind. It is available at no cost, but it is fully supported by Apple. While it is possible to obtain a free screen-access program for Windows (NVDA comes to mind), what you don't get by selecting this free software is technical support—particularly over-the-phone support. You get this support when you pay the several hundred dollars it takes to acquire programs such as Window-Eyes, JAWS, or System Access.
Microsoft does provide the free Narrator speech program for Windows, which has improved with the release of Windows 8. However, at this point, Narrator is not nearly as powerful nor as sophisticated as VoiceOver for Mavericks, and it is safe to say that there are a lot more knowledgeable blind VoiceOver users than there are blind users of Narrator.
On a Windows system there are a number of competing products to choose from for people who need a talking screen-access program. The cost of these products ranges from free to over a thousand dollars, and as I pointed out earlier, the level of technical support that is available varies along with the price of the software.
In Mavericks there is only one truly viable solution for the nonvisual user. It is the free VoiceOver program from Apple. VoiceOver is as sophisticated and as powerful as any Windows screen-access program, and long-time users of Mac computers will tell you that it has been very well supported by Apple.
Given how well Microsoft Office works on a Windows computer, it is natural to assume that it would be just as accessible to VoiceOver users. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For blind users of Mavericks, Microsoft Office is simply not the product to use. It just doesn't work well with VoiceOver. Fortunately, there are quite a few programs built into Mavericks that work very well with VoiceOver. For word processing, Apple's Text Edit program offers a very accessible choice; and Apple's built-in Mail, Calendar, and Contacts programs work quite nicely with VoiceOver. So does Safari, Apple's web-browsing program.
This article would not be complete if I did not mention that on a Mac computer, you can update your operating system without any sighted assistance. Unfortunately, on a Windows computer, when a new operating system is installed, there are times when screen access technology simply doesn't work.Whether a blind person uses a Windows computer or a Mac running a version of OS X, there is today a very high level of independent access available. As I said earlier, I am not prepared to say that one and only one system is best for everyone. Each platform has something to recommend it. Yes, Windows and OS X are different from each other; each system has its own design philosophy. But isn't it great that we who are blind, can now choose between them?