Braille Monitor                                                    May 2009

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Low-Cost Screen Readers

by the Access Technology Team

Pictured here from left to right are IBTC Access Technology Team members Wesley Majerus, Anne Taylor, and Tony Olivero.From the Editor: In the following article the International Braille and Technology Center Access Technology Team reviews four free or low-cost screen readers: Thunder, NVDA, System Access, and WebAnywhere. This is what they say:


Thunder is a free screen-access program as long as its use is personal. If Thunder is being used in a work setting, the company is asked to contact CIC to discuss pricing. Thunder can be downloaded from <> and installed on any computer running Windows 2000, XP, or Vista. Windows 98, ME, and earlier versions are not compatible with Thunder. A pro version is available for a fee that runs from a thumb drive.

Thunder is compatible with the following programs: Outlook Express, Microsoft Word, WordPad, Notepad, MS Calculator, MS Excel, Nod32 AntiVirus, Listen Again radio, and MS Sound Recorder. When you download Thunder, an additional program called WebbIE is automatically downloaded and installed with Thunder for browsing the Internet.

Thunder is controlled by standard Windows commands, and there are special commands for controlling Thunder. Its greatest limitation is Web browsing. The only way to navigate the Web is by using WebbIE. It is important to read the hot keys list at <> because there are several special commands for Web browsing. When filling out a form on the Web, you must press Enter before typing in the form field.


The next screen reader is NVDA, which stands for NonVisual Desktop Access. It is free and can be downloaded by visiting <>. This is experimental software and may contain bugs. We find it very responsive and easy to use. NVDA will run on Windows XP and Windows Vista. NVDA supports both SAPI 4 and 5 voices, Audiologic, Display, and Silence; it comes with eSpeak as the default speech synthesizer. It can be installed to a PC, or the files can be placed on a CD or USB thumb drive for portable use. If the installer is downloaded to a PC, voiced instructions will guide the user through the installation. If the program is placed on a USB thumb drive, the user will need to start the program manually.

NVDA supports MS Word 2003, Firefox, Thunderbird, Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, MS Excel 2003, IBM Lotus Symphony, and many other programs. It is worth being cautious about using these screen-access software packages outside of their stated scope. For example, NVDA performed less than desirably with Microsoft Outlook 2003 (as opposed to Outlook Express). While it was possible to read the Inbox message list and read messages, a number of areas caused NVDA to stop responding. When composing a new message, we could not read the auto-complete options for an email address. Additionally, when reviewing the To, Cc, and Bcc fields, we found the addresses unreadable. The address book, which opens when Outlook prompts the user to confirm an address, did not read at all. Our system also stopped responding when we reached the message edit area of the new message form. We could enter text, but NVDA did not allow us to review or edit it. The Outlook calendar and contacts folders were not read at all. A blind user has no way of reviewing this information in the standard views.

There is currently no support for Microsoft Office 2007. When you are in an edit field while browsing the Internet, Enter or the space bar must be pressed before filling in the form or choosing a radio button. We recommend that Firefox be used to browse the Web; however, we have used Internet Explorer successfully. When you are going to a Web page that needs to refresh automatically, Firefox will yield better results. When navigating the Web, the user can move to forms, tables, headings, lists, and links by pressing a single key. NVDA has built-in keyboard help. When NVDA is installed on the computer, start-up time is very fast. User settings can be changed and saved within the Preference menu of the program. Voice settings, mouse settings, speech synthesizer, mouse, and many other options are available from this menu.

System Access

Another screen-access software package is System Access. This low-cost screen reader is available from <>. It can be purchased outright; alternatively, the user can get a monthly subscription. Prices vary depending on the package you choose. Contact Serotek for current pricing information or visit <>.

The AIR Foundation and Serotek now also offer System Access to Go, which gives free screen access using the Website <>.

System Access by default comes with Dectalk voices. For an additional fee two Real Speak voices can be downloaded and installed. This program runs on Windows 2003 Server, Windows XP, and Windows Vista. System Access supports the following applications: Notepad, WordPad, Outlook Express, Email Center on a Vista machine, Excel, PowerPoint, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office 2007, Skype, and many other programs. System Access is easy to use because it uses many standard Windows commands. Moreover, many screen-reader commands are the same as those in other screen readers on the market today. When using Internet Explorer, you can get a links list, tab to move by link, use first letter navigation to move to headings, tables, lists, and many other elements as well. In Internet Explorer, if a Webpage requires a lot of refreshing, this program may not always work. If you are a subscriber to the System Access mobile network, the page can be opened by the browser. With a System Access U3 USB thumb drive, you can walk up to a computer, plug in the drive, and have System Access begin talking. If users have System Access on a computer at home or the office and have enabled remote access, they can use that computer from any machine as if they were sitting at it. With System Access the user can also remote-control another user’s computer if that person accepts a request from the other machine.

System Access provides access to the Microsoft Excel interface. The user can input and manipulate data and formulas and interact with the menus and toolbars. The user can also create a chart and, depending on the type, read the data it contains. A dialog box, accessed by pressing the System Access modifier key and F7, displays list boxes for all cells containing data, cells containing links, totals cells (those containing totals derived from a formula), and the worksheets contained in the Excel workbook. Selecting one of the totals cells and pressing the space bar toggles the automatic reading of that cell if the data it contains changes.

Access to the Microsoft Word word processor is also available with System Access. Menus, toolbars, and dialog boxes are usable. When you move by character or word, formatting details such as bold or italic are spoken in a different voice after the word or character is read. However, elements such as heading levels are not spoken. The spell check is accessible, and System Access speaks the misspelled word and the recommended replacement. System Access also supports the Alva Braille Controller 640 as a Braille display; no other Braille support is documented.

Web Anywhere

Web Anywhere (WA) is not a screen reader in the traditional sense of the word. It does provide audio output of screen contents but is restricted to the Web browser solely. The Web Anywhere site was developed by the Computer Science Department of the University of Washington and can be accessed at <>. When this page is launched, your computer should begin reading Web Anywhere's start page. This page describes the Web Anywhere system and provides a list of keystrokes that can be used with Web Anywhere.

In a basic sense Web browsing can be achieved with Web Anywhere in a traditional way. Users can arrow around the page and tab and shift tab between the links. Above the page content is a box for typing in the URL that you would like Web Anywhere to navigate to. WA loads your desired page into the browser window that contains Web Anywhere, which is evident if you examine the window with a screen reader like JAWS. However, with all other screen readers shut down, you have access to only the part of the Web browser where Web Anywhere and your desired page are located. You will not be able to use any third-party applications while using WA.

In its current form Web Anywhere is an alpha release. It offers basic Web browsing that includes navigation by heading, link, and input control. There are also commands to read from the current cursor position, read from the top, and move to the next and previous form control, regardless of what type of control it is. WA currently lacks a traditional table-reading mode but does offer ways to move through a table by row and by cell. It is difficult to understand how the table is formatted because you cannot easily navigate to cells and multiple rows. Web Anywhere also does not provide ways to list links, controls, or other elements as you can in more powerful screen readers.

Web Anywhere is an alpha project. It is available free of charge from <>. Since it is a Web-based application, you will always have the latest version whenever you launch the site.

We have written this article to make users aware of free and low-cost screen readers. System Access is the most powerful of the screen readers we have discussed. JAWS, Hal, and Window-Eyes allow the user to write JAWS and Hal scripts or Window-Eyes scripts or set files to customize programs to work better. If a person wants to have basic use of the computer, the screen-access software discussed in this article will allow this. We believe that Thunder is the least powerful screen reader followed by NVDA, and then System Access. Other than the limited Braille support for System Access mentioned above, none of the screen-access software discussed in this article has Braille support at this time. If you have further questions, give our access technology line a call at (410) 659-9314, option 5.


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