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This overview outlines some of the basic types of technology you will need to consider as a college student. As you read it, think about the technology that you’d like to learn more about. Then you can consult the vendors mentioned here or do an Internet search to obtain more specific information. As you read, keep in mind that the technology landscape can change rapidly. This discussion is not an exhaustive list of assistive technology for students who are blind or who have low vision. However, the most widely used options are presented here.

By George Kerscher, Senior Officer, Accessible Technology on Thursday, November 30, 2017 8:57:01 AM


First, as the introduction to Discovering Technology pointed out, every college student, with or without a disability, must have a computer that he or she can use effectively. Notetakers, tablets, portable book readers, and cell phones are wonderful, but you will need a computer that you can use to access and work with the college’s website, its Learning Management System (LMS), and its networks, and with software you use for reading and for creating and editing documents, spreadsheets, and presentation materials. Both the Windows and Mac environments provide good accessibility, power and versatility.

Windows or Mac

The debate about the merits of the Mac and Windows operating system platforms and their accessibility features is ongoing. People who have used them extensively have seen advantages and disadvantages on both sides.

In the Windows environment, the primary options for users who are blind or for those who work with a screen reader—i.e., software that reads all text aloud--are JAWS for Windows (or JFW) from Freedom Scientific, Window-Eyes from GW Micro (which merged with AI Squared), and Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA), which is free. Computer users with low vision can select from Freedom Scientific’s Magic or AI Squared’s ZoomText. In the Mac environment people use VoiceOver, which is maintained by Apple and covers screen reading; screen magnification is also addressed under Mac’s accessibility features. Both VoiceOver and screen magnification are built in on all Macs, iPads, and iPhones.

Overall, the most economical choice may be to purchase a Windows computer made by a company that has a good reputation. Lenovo, Dell, HP, Toshiba, and others are all fine hardware products. In most cases, you will not need the most powerful processor, such as the IntelI7; instead an I5 should provide you with more than enough power to meet your needs.

Screen Readers for Windows

JAWS: In the United States, Job Access with Speech (JAWS), which also is known as Jaws for Windows or JFW, from Freedom Scientific, has a long-standing reputation for being the best screen reader for people who are blind. The initial cost of JAWS home edition is $895 and you may decide to purchase a service agreement for $120, which gives you two major updates. The university or college you attend may have purchased JAWS Professional edition for $1,095 (or multiple licenses) and a Software Maintenance Agreement (SMA) for $200, which might allow you to use its version on your computer. You will need to check with your college DSO to determine if this is an option that is available to you.

Freedom Scientific maintains a technical support line for licensed users to call with questions or problems with JAWS software. Also, it is likely that you will be able to find friends who use JFW and can provide assistance. Training is also available from many outside sources.

Window-Eyes: Window-Eyes is another popular, powerful screen reader for the Windows platform. Many people strongly prefer Window-Eyes over JFW. Recently, GW Micro merged with AI Squared to provide a combined screen reader and low vision product. Window Eyes is $895, and the optional SMA is $199, which entitles you to two major upgrades. However, it has a relationship with Microsoft’s Office team. That is, if you own a licensed version of Microsoft Office 2010 or later, you can run Window-Eyes on your machine at no cost. There is only a small charge for technical support. Also, you may decide to purchase the extra voices available. This is a very good option for users of Microsoft Office.

NVDA: A free option for screen reader users is Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA). This product is supported by donations. Over the past few years, it has grown in popularity and has become more sophisticated, rivaling the power and functionality of both JFW and Window- Eyes. It is certainly an option for a blind user on a tight budget. You may also want to consider installing NVDA (and make a small donation to the developer) and keep this screen reader on your computer for those times when you have problems with your other one. It is also noteworthy that this product is improving rapidly because of the large user base that is helping in testing and development.

Low Vision Products for Windows

For the student with low vision, there are four popular options for accessing and working with materials on a Windows computer. Two include synthetic speech in conjunction with magnification.

Magic: Freedom Scientific offers Magic screen magnification for $395, and if you want integrated synthetic speech, the cost is $595. The SMA for both versions is $95, which entitles you to two major upgrades. Technical support is available at no extra charge.

ZoomText: AI Squared offers ZoomText for low vision users. The cost is $395, and with synthetic speech it is $595. The extended Service Program is $249 and entitles you to two upgrades. Technical support is also available at no charge.

Mac: Built-In Screen Reader and Screen Magnifier

Apple has done a wonderful job with VoiceOver on the Mac. VoiceOver addresses the needs of both the screen reader user and the user with low vision. Accessibility features, including VoiceOver, are built into all Apple’s operating systems, which makes this an attractive option for users on a budget. Although Apple’s hardware is slightly more expensive, the ease of setup may be worth that extra cost, especially because there is no additional charge for the accompanying assistive technology.

Refreshable Braille

For students who want to use braille in conjunction with their computers, a blue tooth braille display is the most portable and versatile option. There are many types of braille displays available on the market today. Refreshable braille displays come in a variety of sizes; 18, 20, 30, 32, and 40 cell displays are common. The number of braille cells greatly influences the price. When purchasing products, it’s a good idea to consult with manufacturers concerning their compatibility with the specific operating system you‘re planning to use. It’s also advisable to check with screen reader manufacturers for information on compatibility with refreshable braille products you are considering. Some people will use a single refreshable braille display with their smartphone and their computer (but not at the same time, of course).

An initiative to develop lower cost refreshable braille displays is underway. These devices will take advantage of the newer technology. The first generation of these new refreshable braille products will be hitting the market in the second quarter of 2016.

Smartphones

A smartphone will be important for your success—in school, in work, and in life. These powerful and extremely portable tools are very handy for performing many tasks. You’ll probably find that your smartphone in conjunction with your computer provides the most versatility, because a computer and an iPhone or other phone share data quickly and accessibly. For example, you can set up your computer and phone to share your contacts and calendar with each other, which means that when you add a calendar item or a contact, it is updated in both places. You can also share files between your computer and smart phone using Dropbox, which is a versatile cloud-based solution.

Apple’s iPhone is widely used in the blind and low vision community. It uses a touch screen combined with specific VoiceOver gestures to make reading and navigation of tasks fully accessible. Another type of Smartphone is the Android, which uses Talkback as a screen reader. Talkback is improving with each release of the operating system. There are many makes and models of the smart phones that use the Android platform, which creates some issues, because each manufacturer takes the open source Android code and makes modifications for its particular device. As a result, the degree of accessibility may differ from one Android phone to the next. However, you may find that the Android smart phones can be significantly less expensive than Apple’s iPhone. The cost needs to be calculated in conjunction with the provider you select.

Dedicated Blindness Hardware

“Dedicated blindness hardware” refers to the stand-alone products made by manufacturers who design products specifically for people who are blind or visually impaired. These include note-takers, normally with a built-in refreshable braille display, hand-held and larger magnifiers for people with low vision, and small portable DAISY players. These products are attractive to persons who are blind or who have low vision, because the interface is optimized for ease of use.

Sometimes students in high school are provided with a notetaker, and they become familiar with using these products. Although manufacturers try hard to replicate the functions of a standard computer, there are major differences. If you are comfortable with a notetaker, you should use one for college. However, notetakers almost never take the place of a PC or Mac, because they often don’t work as seamlessly with the Internet or with your college’s LMS as a computer does.

Nevertheless, both notetakers and DAISY portable recorders can be very helpful. They provide DAISY Digital Talking Book (DTB) playback and can be used to play titles from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Bookshare, or Learning Ally. These DAISY Players can also be used for music, podcasts, text reading, and more.

Currently, many of the functions once only available on dedicated blindness hardware are now available as APPS on the iPhone, iPad, Android phones, and tablets.

Final Thoughts

One of the greater challenges you will encounter when obtaining technology is its cost. This particularly hits home for students who are blind or visually impaired, who often need equipment that costs more to produce and is sold to a relatively small market. Companies like Humanware or Freedom Scientific don’t have the large numbers of technology users that Microsoft and Apple have to help drive down their costs. Luckily all states have vocational rehabilitation services for adults who are blind or visually impaired, including college students, and purchasing equipment and software, as well as training the student on their proper use, is usually included in these services. If you haven’t done so already, consult your state’s department of vocational rehabilitation to find out what technology and services they will and will not cover.

In general, you may find that the least expensive approach is to purchase a refurbished computer with a warrantee from a reputable manufacturer, like Lenovo or Dell (there are many others). Combining this with NVDA for Windows is the least expensive option.

Whatever system you end up using, make sure you start well before the semester begins and really learn how to use the operating system to launch programs, save files in a particular location, and search for items on your computer. The time you invest in learning the operating system will be time well spent.

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