[Athen] FW: [vipnews] Low-Cost Screen Readers

Ron Stewart ron at ahead.org
Mon Jun 22 19:24:30 PDT 2009

Thought inquiring minds might want to know


NFB Braille Monitor, May 2009 Edition

Low-Cost Screen Readers
by the Access Technology Team

>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 Screenreader.net CIC to
discuss pricing. Thunder can
be downloaded from <www.screenreader.net> 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 < www.screenreader.net

> 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 < http://www.nvda-project.org >. 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
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 < http://www.serotek.com >. 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 < http://www.serotek.com/cas.html >.
The AIR Foundation and Serotek now also offer System Access to Go, which
gives free screen access
using the Website < www.satogo.com >.
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
< www.wa.cs.washington.edu >. 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
<wa.cs.washington.edu>. 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

If you have further questions, give our access technology line a call at
(410) 659-9314, option 5.

LINK: Further issues of the Braille Monitor, including the new June 2009
edition can be found at



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