I chose this unit for two reasons. Firstly because I work with a Visually Impaired student who uses SuperNova, which is a magnifier and screen reader, so I thought that I knew a little bit about this topic which might help. Secondly, so that I would learn more about how to use it, which might come in useful if my student’s sight deteriorates. How wrong could I be!
I am very familiar with SuperNova’s magnification as my student uses this feature all of the time. The user has the options to choose between:
- a full screen magnification (everything on the screen is magnified, so only part of the screen is visible)
- a magnifying glass (as you move the mouse over the screen it is like moving a magnifying glass over it. The full screen is always visible in its small form, but the area that the mouse points to is magnified)
- split screen (half of the screen is magnified – the user chooses which half, top, bottom, left, right – and the other half is ‘normal’ size)
The level of magnification is controlled with function keys and has a huge range of options including fractional magnification, so that as well as having twice the size, 3x the size, etc., it is possible to have 1.2x, 1.5x etc, providing the user with the option of having the magnification at the exact level they need.
Navigating around the magnified screen, in full screen mode, can be easily done using the mouse or using Ctrl+left/right arrow. If you repeatedly press the arrow keys then the movement across the screen is quicker, this is very useful when reading across a document or webpage, as it provides a true smooth horizontal movement which is difficult to achieve with the mouse.
Windows 7 Magnifier
I had not used Windows 7 Magnifier before, but I have to say that I was very impressed. It too has options for magnification: full screen, magnifying glass and docked (a fixed ribbon at the top of the screen displays a magnified version of the area indicated by the mouse). The available levels of magnification are simply 2x, 3x, etc. But it has the option (using Ctrl+Alt+space bar) to briefly zoom out to see where on the screen you are. The full ‘normal’ screen is shown with the magnified area clearly visible and the rest of the screen greyed out. For my student, who uses 4x, 5x, 6x, and even 7x magnification when his eyes are tired, this would be useful as he sometimes ‘loses’ where he is on the screen and doesn’t know which way to go to find what he is looking for. On the down side, although the list of shortcuts says that you can pan using Ctrl+Alt+left/right arrow, when I tried it, the screen display turned through 90° instead!
Comments and Conclusion on Magnifiers
Magnifiers are fantastic for people with a visual impairment, although they are not without their own difficulties. If you use the full screen magnification then navigating around the screen is not easy. Whether using the mouse or keyboard it is easy to feel nauseous with text continually moving on the screen. Whichever view is used, only part of the screen in visible in an enlarged format, so that ‘reading ahead’, which most people do to aid correct reading, is not possible. In the school context, many screen activities are still not viable, such as playing interactive games, as important parts of the screen can not be viewed at the same time.
There are pros and cons to each of these screen magnifiers, but the biggest differential is that Windows 7 Magnifier comes free with the operating system.
My student is very reluctant to use the speech features of SuperNova so I am not as familiar with these aspects. I encourage him to listen to his work to see whether he has written what he intended, as a proofreading aid. I now realise that we do not use the screen reader facilities at all. I have tried using both SuperNova and NVDA as screen readers with very little joy.
My student struggles to find out information on the internet as he uses such a high level of magnification, so I wondered whether using a screen reader might be of benefit. Consequently, after I had been through all of the things on the Load2Learn self learning station I downloaded NVDA and tried to use the internet. A voice in my ear kept telling me lots of things I didn’t understand and none of the things I wanted to know. Youtube has video clips showing everything, doesn’t it? So I spent quite a while looking there. Youtube has video clips showing everything except how to use a screen reader on the internet! I kept telling myself that it must be possible as a lot of people do this, but…
I decided to try to use SuperNova. One of the technicians had written a ‘Noddy’s Guide to SuperNova’ so I thought that might help. I tried reading a Wikipedia entry for World War 2. SuperNova would read me every link, but could I get it to read me the text in the middle of the page, the bit that you go there to read? No.
Having failed to read a web page, I thought that I would try using NVDA to navigate my computer, write and proofread a document. I did better at this task, probably because I know the structure of my files and the keystrokes to do things without needing to put the mouse in the right place. This was an interesting experience too, as it showed up (as did one video, Introducing JAWS) the fact that screen readers use a lot of jargon, eg combo boxes, which the user needs to understand in order to know what the screen reader is describing.
When listening to the document I was typing, I found it hard to understand what NVDA was saying, so I switched from the default voice, which improved matters a little. Unlike WordTalk, which tries to read whatever is in the document, NVDA tells you that there is a spelling mistake before trying to read it, which is useful if it is a mistake and not a word that is just not in its dictionary. During the proofreading process I kept losing the knowledge of where the insertion point was, so I was continually making matters worse. At least this aspect is one that I am sure would improve with practise.
I also tried navigating the structured and non-structured documents provided using NVDA. Here the structure helped with working out how many sections there were as each heading was announced as such. Whereas, with the non-structured document, the headings looked like headings, but to the screen reader they were just text like all the rest of the characters. The same was true when trying to read bookmarked and non-bokmarked pdf versions of the files. Navigating was still not easy. NVDA gives a lot of information, but seems to miss out some of the facts I was listening for. When trying to navigate the structured Word document by jumping from one heading to the next, I used the shortcut Ctrl+Alt+Home to select the browse object, and I was told ‘toolbar, select browse object, drop down button grid, select the next slash browse object’. When I used the down arrow I was told ‘table table 2 rows 1 column’ or if I pressed the right arrow ‘table table 1 rows 2 columns’ and after that, nothing. Selecting an option simply returned me to the document with no comment on what I had selected. How do you know that you have selected browse by heading (which is what you need to easily navigate from one heading to the next)?
Comments and Conclusion for Screen Readers
I had so little success using screen readers that I do not feel that I can make any meaningful comparison between the free and the commercial software. I have worked with technology all my life, and am very familiar with taking a product and finding my way around using the user manuals, help guides and now YouTube. I found it very frustrating that with screen readers I was unable to do this. Clearly they are useable, as many blind and visually impaired people use them very effectively. I felt that I never got to grips with the basics of how they work or the terminology they use, which is vital to understanding the information they are trying to convey. If I or my student ever need to use a screen reader then I hope that we can either find an easier guide to using them, or preferably someone who can give a lesson/demonstration and answer the many questions that arise.