Volume II Number 3, August 1995

Department: Job Accommodations

Joseph J. Lazzaro

Anyone who is aware of trends in adaptive technology is at least peripherally aware of the current dilemma with access to graphical user interfaces. The GUI access issue has been slowly and steadily costing people their jobs and livelihoods, not to mention a lot of sobering nail biting. There is still a lot of fear and confusion in the community. The stakes are high, and we're playing for keeps! As a blind person, I am gravely concerned about the developments in access to graphical user interfaces. As project director for an equipment loan program, I see real people impacted by this issue every day on the job. In order to combat the GUI obstacle, I armed my consumers and myself with the most powerful screen readers as they entered the market. I have worked with and tested all of the graphical screen readers using speech output. These evaluations have been an interesting process fraught with fear, hope, and painful progress. I am pleased to see that Windows 3.x screen readers in general are becoming more sophisticated and robust, although many perhaps unsolvable problems remain with the current Windows operating system. Our best hope is with the new Windows 95 platform, which should be released by the time you read these words. I am also pleased to report that Microsoft is making major changes to the Windows 95 operating system to make it more accessible across the board to persons with disabilities. The bad news is that these sweeping changes will take two to three years to complete. The list of changes was made evident at a ground breaking conference sponsored by the Redmond software behemoth.


In July, I attended the Access to Windows 95 conference, held at Microsoft Corporation in Washington State. As its title implies, the conference focused on efforts being made by Microsoft to make its Windows 95 operating system more accessible to persons with disabilities. Access by blind and visually impaired users was a prominent topic at the conference as blind access poses the greatest challenge to Windows developers. At the conference, Microsoft staff informed us that it would take two to three years to make Windows 95 and its applications fully accessible. This sounds like a long time to wait, but the work that remains to be done is staggering.


The first step is to imbed the necessary hooks and functions into Windows 95 to enable speech, Braille, and large print access packages. These hooks have to be tested and proven in real world applications with a new generation of adaptive hardware and software written specifically for Windows 95.


Microsoft is also writing code to make the lives of adaptive software developers a lot easier. An off-screen-model (OSM) is currently under construction to assist screen access utilities. the OSM will keep track of what is on the screen, giving a screen reader an accurate list of objects to query. The OSM will not be available until the middle of 1996.


Microsoft is also building additional access features into Windows 95, such as a screen magnifier, captioning and description hooks, alternative keyboard and mouse assistants, and more. Future plans include voice command and control functionality. The good news is that the current suite of access features will not be a clumsy add-on but will be part of the default installation package.


Below is a list of the available GUI screen readers that are currently shipping from their respective companies. I have included a brief description of each product, as well as company contact information. You are urged to contact the various vendors for more specific information. This is intended only as a capsule summary of the products currently available, and does not include products that are undergoing beta testing. Included are screen readers that run under Windows and OS/2 as well as Macintosh platforms.


IBM's Screen Reader/2 is a screen reader program for persons with vision impairments. The software is capable of converting screen information to speech or Braille to make IBM's OS/2 Graphical User Interface accessible to persons who are blind or visually impaired. Screen Reader/2 is designed to run with OS/2 and Warp in all sessions. The program can monitor the screen and automatically verbalize desired objects. The Autospeak function monitors the screen and provides voice output of OS/2 screen information. A dedicated 18-key keypad controls Screen Reader/2 functions to enhance productivity by reserving the keyboard for application functions. Screen Reader/2 can be controlled from the keyboard as an alternative. Reading functions allow the user to read complete screens, paragraphs, sentences, words, or letters, reading only the desired information. Customized voice profiles are provided for the most popular programs. By using the Profile Access language, a profile can be modified or created. Built-in Host/LAN support enables connectivity. The windowing capability provides easy access to many display formats used by popular applications. Screen Reader/2 recognizes and verbalizes icons to keep the user informed of screen activity and cursor movement, and the program also emulates mouse functions like point and click. The system includes on-line and audio cassette documentation. OS/2 Screen Representations are provided in raised line format.

IBM Independence Series Information Center
P.O. Box 1328, Internal Zip 5432
Boca Raton, FL 33429


Jaws For Windows is a Windows-based screen reader for persons with vision impairments. The software comes bundled with several installation disks, and six hours of audio cassette training tapes. Jaws for Windows works with most Windows applications, and will read only Windows applications. In order to read DOS applications, you need the optional Jaws screen reader for DOS. Both products support a wide variety of external and internal voice synthesizers. Jaws supports the standard Windows navigation keys, thereby allowing the user to control applications using the keyboard rather than the mouse. Its built-in assistant alerts the blind user to the layout and command structure of Windows. At the press of a key, Jaws announces, "You are in a dialogue box, use the tab key to move from field to field." The off-screen model used in Jaws was purchased by MicroSoft for incorporation into Windows 95 to act as a backbone to future screen readers. A macro language is provided to allow the speech output to be customized from application to application. The macro language can be used to read portions of the screen on command or to chain screen reader commands in sequence.

Henter-Joyce, Inc.
2100 62nd Ave. North
St. Petersburg, FL 33702


Winvision is a Windows-based screen reader which is also intended for persons with vision impairments. The software works with most commercial Windows applications, and supports the Artic and DECtalk voice synthesizers. The package includes a speech synthesizer card, screen reading software for both DOS and Windows, external speaker, headphones, and audio cassette documentation. The software can also be purchased with the Artic Transport speech synthesizer, a portable, battery-powered unit. Winvision comes bundled with Artic Business Vision, a DOS-based screen reader that reads most text-based software. The complete Winvision & Business Vision package can read both DOS and Windows applications.

Artic Technologies Inc.
55 Park St
Suite 2
Troy, MI 48083


Outspoken is a Windows-based screen reader for persons with vision impairments. The software was designed to read Windows applications, and works in conjunction with DOS-based screen readers, allowing the user access to familiar DOS access software. Outspoken automatically tracks and speaks mouse and cursor movements, and reads icons and other graphical objects on command. Outspoken verbalizes dialogue boxes, radio buttons, and other graphical controls, and can be used with many Windows-based applications packages. The screen reader supports most commercial synthesizers, including Dectalk, Accent, Sonix, and the Sounding Board. Outspoken comes with tactile reference sheets which show the layout of typical Windows screens, making it easier for persons with vision impairments to learn Windows. The system manuals are also provided on audio tape and computer disk. A Macintosh version is also available. (Outspoken for the Macintosh was the first GUI screen reader to enter the adaptive market.)

Berkeley Access
2095 Rose St.
Berkeley, CA 94709


Protalk for Windows is a screen reader program for use with Microsoft Windows applications programs. Protalk can be used to read the screens of text-oriented Windows applications, like data bases, spreadsheets, word processing packages, etc. The software is compatible with digital multi-media sound cards such as the Sound Blaster. Protalk supports a wide range of commercially available internal and external voice synthesizers. Protalk for Windows is automated, so no configurations are needed to start using the program. Its multiple read-out hot keys are applicable to most Windows programs. The command keys are focused around the number pad. Documentation is available in alternative formats.

Biolink Computer R & D Ltd.
140 W. 15th St., Suite 105
North Vancouver, BRC V7M 1R6


Slimware Window Bridge is a screen reader program designed to provide access to both DOS and Windows for the Braille or synthetic speech user. The program automatically provides information within Windows - including window titles, menu selections, prompts, error messages, and command buttons - without requiring customized configuration files or templates. Slimware will also navigate the mouse in Windows, automatically identifying each item of information as the mouse is moved. The mouse Audio Sensor allows the user to hear the mouse pointer move on the screen. A horizontal or vertical mouse locking guarantees straight movement of the mouse pointer in any direction. Control of the mouse pointer can also be achieved from the keyboard. A Help Mode gives access to the location on the keyboard of any Window Bridge command as well as to a Quick Reference Tutorial for any Window Bridge feature. Verbal or Braille identification labels are user-defined for any level of function keys for any Applications Program. The program features a built-in 120+ function financial, hexadecimal, metric conversion and scientific calculator. Manuals are available in alternative formats.

Syntha-Voice Computers, Inc.
800 Queenston Road
Suite 304
Stoney Creek Ont L8G 1A7


Windows Master is a screen reader for persons with vision impairments who require access to the Windows 3.x operating system. The software tracks both the standard cursor and mouse, and can verbalize Windows and other graphical objects. Online documentation is available. Windows Master supports a number of internal and external voice synthesizers, including the Braille 'n Speak.

Blazie Engineering
105 East Jarrettsville Road
Forest Hill, MD 21050


ScreenPower is a Windows-based screen reader for persons with vision impairments. The software can drive both a voice synthesizer and Braille display. ScreenPower allows the user to move with audio or tactile verification among different "levels" in the Windows operating system. The package assists the user in navigating through Windows. Documentation is provided in alternative formats.

Telesensory Corporation
455 North Bernardo Avenue
PO Box 7455
Mountain View, CA 94039
Lazzaro, J. J. (1995). Job accommodations. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 2(3).