American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Early Childhood      TECHNOLOGY

(back) (contents) (next)

Why Human Readers Are No Substitute for Accessible Software

by Sabra Ewing

Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 61, Number 2, February 2018

Sabra EwingFrom the Editor: In the days before screen readers and the vast resources of the internet, it was essential for blind students to use human readers effectively. No blind student could navigate college or even high school courses without readers to provide access to the reams of printed material that otherwise were out of reach. Since computers entered our lives, making more and more material available electronically through screen readers and magnification, blind and visually-impaired students have the possibility of full and equal access, the chance to study and learn without hindrance beside their sighted classmates. However, as we all know, that dream is far from reality. All too often electronic material used in the classroom is inaccessible nonvisually. At times school districts press for blind and visually-impaired students to use human readers when they are faced with inaccessible software. In this article Sabra Ewing, who spent years dealing with software issues as a blind student, explains why she feels that using a live reader is not an acceptable alternative.

The Accessible Instructional Materials Act creates guidelines for the use of accessible, education-based electronic content. The act also has a provision for alternative equal access that allows schools to provide access through other means when the current materials are not sufficient. Both school officials and blind people sometimes believe that a human reader can serve as alternative access. They fail to realize that use of a human reader creates diminished access by distorting cause and effect relationships in virtual environments, demanding impractical knowledge of a visual interface, and promoting dependence and distortion throughout the data analysis process.

Let us imagine that a school district serving a blind student is short of mobility instructors. The district cannot provide an instructor for this student, but it has the perfect solution. An instructor working with someone else will call the student, who will listen as she describes pertinent features of the lesson such as intersections, safe street crossings, and proper cane technique. As the student listens, he will participate mentally in the lesson.

Okay, so maybe it isn't the perfect solution, but schools do a similar disservice to blind students by providing a reader in place of accessible software. A virtual environment has cause and effect relationships just like a physical one. When you press a button or move to another area on the screen, the environment changes. When you enter data, the environment will respond. Because the process is very interactive, allowing a human reader to control software for a blind student will hinder the student's learning, much as virtual participation in an O&M lesson would give the student incomplete participation in a physical environment.

Some might argue that schools could minimize this effect by having the reader serve as a proxy, following the student's exact instructions from the beginning of software activation down to the last mouse click. The problem is that a blind student interfaces with the computer nonvisually. The student would have difficulty telling a reader how to locate and click on an envelope or green arrow, for example. Many blind students process information in such a way that they could not direct a reader to icons on a constantly changing screen.

Then there is the meaning. You can explain to a blind student that an envelope is what you click on to check your email, and that a green arrow means next or forward like a green light, but this process could potentially apply to every icon. For someone who has always used a screen reader, such information is not very intuitive or practical. The school should encourage students to focus on blindness skills that take less effort and allow more independence instead of asking them to master a skill that would take years of study and leave them dependent on a reader.

One more problem exists with using a reader instead of accessible software: information will become distorted and less available. A reader, even a trained one, becomes a control for how to present information and a filter for what is important. This becomes especially true with software simulations, it will take too long for a reader to describe every changing screen. But the principle applies to all instructional media, including textbooks. Blind people have learned through experience and training what information they can get with a screen reader and how to ask for it. Furthermore, the information is available when they need it, just as it is for sighted students. Blind students are not receiving equal access when they have to learn at a slower pace, wait for recordings or work around a reader's schedule, and create notes from scratch based on what a reader tells them when the school does not provide alternative software and file formats.

In short, the forced use of a reader in place of accessible instructional materials will severely stunt a student's learning and success. Students must use software themselves to understand concepts fully. In addition, schools should expect them to perform from a blindness skill set rather than mastering the counterintuitive skill of operating a visual interface. Equal access also means that both blind and sighted students should have the same independence and ease of use. We must therefore demand that where a school cannot reasonably switch to accessible software, it must provide alternative instructional materials to blind students that do not require the use of a human reader.

Media Share

Facebook Share

(back) (contents) (next)