In July 1995, the National Federation of the Blind released a
unique set of consumer reviews it had compiled, covering most
screen readers on the market today. This document summarizes the
complete text by excerpting the conclusions and contact
information sections related to each product, as well as the
cross-product conceptual sections. I have divided it into two
messages: the first on DOS screen readers and the second on
Distributed by Jamal Mazrui
National Council on Disability
THE GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACE
In 1985, a new system of computer interaction became widely
available although experiments and early efforts had preceded it
by several years. It is commonly known as the Graphical User
interface or GUI, commonly pronounced as "gooey," as in "The
chewing gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe is a gooey mess."
Apple's Macintosh was the first widely available GUI system.
Other examples that blind persons are now able to use include
IBM's OS/2 Presentation Manager and Microsoft's Windows 3.1 and
Windows for Workgroups. The final major GUI, which we are not
yet able to access, is X-Windows which is commonly used with Unix
The Graphical user Interface is characterized by the use of
a mouse or other pointing device and icons and other graphical
elements. To better understand the differences between a GUI and
a more traditional character-based system, let us go back and
explain the character or text-based system.
These systems include the old Apple II line, the Commodore
64, Ataris, and all IBM and compatible computers running MS-DOS
and other character-based operating systems. The standard IBM or
compatible computer normally displays text in a layout of 25
horizontal rows by up to 80 vertical columns. There is a portion
of the computer's memory where this information is stored. Thus,
there is a memory location that represents each possible position
on the computer monitor. In that location, information on the
character, its attributes, and location are stored. The screen
review program only has to look at the proper memory addresses to
see what is being displayed by the computer. This one-to-one
memory-to-video display correspondence is what makes screen
review programs possible and relatively simple, technically
A GUI, on the other hand, does not have this one-to-one
correspondence. Individual letters are drawn onto the screen by
turning on and off little dots called pixels (picture elements).
A GUI display does not necessarily have 25 rows or 80 columns of
text. The size of the letters can be changed by redrawing them,
using different dots, and the space between letters and/or lines
can be infinitely varied. Further, the GUI uses pictures called
icons. These pictures represent objects, such as documents or
programs, and actions such as formatting a disk or erasing a
file. Further, text and icons are moved around the screen by a
"pointer" which is controlled with a mouse or other pointing
device. A mouse is a small box-like object, about the size of a
pack of cigarettes, which is attached to your computer with a
wire. The mouse is moved around on a flat surface, and it moves
the mouse pointer correspondingly on the computer's monitor.
This pointer is used to move objects, choose objects, highlight
text, re-size text and windows, and other actions.
Why would a blind person want a GUI? Well, left to our own
devices, we wouldn't. The GUI's available today use a variety of
visual metaphors which are difficult to translate into linear
audio terms. Further, some programs employ true graphics, that
is, drawings or pictures of objects. It is difficult, if not
impossible, for software to know what a picture is and to convey
this information to a blind person. It would be even more
difficult to create, manipulate, and/or change these drawn
objects. Nevertheless, the general computing world is adopting
GUI-based systems almost universally and we are being forced to
them ourselves. Many employers now only use Microsoft Windows on
their computers, so we must use it too.
GUI's do offer one major advantage over traditional
DOS-based systems, multitasking. This is the ability to run more
then one application simultaneously. This would allow a person
to be composing a document in a word processor and easily look up
something in a database without leaving the word processor. At
the same time he could also be downloading a file from an on-line
service or BBS.
As an example, this portion of the document is being written
in WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, which is running under Microsoft
Windows 3.1. Also running on the same computer, at the same
time, are Telix--a communications program, Allfind--a database
program we use at the NFB, Allserve--an in-house program we use
to handle phone calls and literature orders, and SDIR--a
directory management program. The phone just rang with a
question about Artic Business Vision. This writer was able to
bring up the directory management program with two or three
keystrokes, look up the needed information, and instantly return
to this point in this document. Under DOS, he would have had to
save the file, exit the program, start the SDIR program, look up
the information, exit SDIR, re-start WordPerfect, load this
document and return to where he left off.
Finally, the other advantage that GUI's offer, in
conjunction with multitasking, is memory management. MS-DOS
systems were essentially restricted to using 640K of memory.
Windows, and other GUI systems, automatically handle large pools
of memory allocating it to different programs as it is needed.
This is in part what makes multitasking possible.
There is yet another advantage to Windows that is often
cited, that of "standardization. " That is that standard
procedures for common tasks, like opening and saving files, are
employed. Thus, when you start to learn a new program, you will
know many of the necessary actions automatically. It is not our
purpose to debate whether or not this is true, especially for
sighted computer users. It is not yet completely true for blind
computer users. There are two major reasons for this: (1) the
access software still needs improvements so many, if not all, of
the packages don't work as well as they might and ultimately
will, and (2) software developers do not always use standard
controls such as dialog boxes, even though they may look standard
on the screen. This nonstandardization causes some of the
problems for access software, mentioned in point (1).
Because some of the concerns of DOS-based programs don't
apply, and because there is a whole new set of concerns stemming
from the use of the GUI, the guidelines used for evaluation were
modified for this portion of the tests. These guidelines are as
1. General description: How does the program work? How are
commands laid out? What is the logic? Description?
2. What speech synthesizers are supported? Is indexing
supported, and if so how well does it work? Does it shut up the
synthesizer efficiently and quickly? Does it use the SSIL
drivers from Arkenstone or another system? Does it support
standard "sound cards" such as the Sound Blaster? Does it
support refreshable Braille displays, and if so can they be run
simultaneously with a speech synthesizer or separately? Does it
support large-print facilities or is there a separate large-print
3. Requirements: Are there any hardware and/or software
requirements? A particular version of DOS, etc.? Is a DOS-based
screen review program required? Can the program be used with any
video and/or keyboard driver, or do specific drivers from the
manufacturer have to be used? Does the product work with devices
such as video accelerator cards, or are there known conflicts?
4. Installation: How do you install it? Is it easy? Do you
need sighted assistance? Can you do it if you don't already have
some speech up? Do you need to have Microsoft Windows
pre-installed? Can you use the access package to install
Windows? Is there any copy protection, and if so does it affect
the installation process? Are there special installation
considerations such as whether you are using a memory manager,
and if so is the needed information readily available?
5. Memory requirements: How much memory does it take? Can it
be moved high? Can it run in expanded or extended memory? Can
you reduce the memory footprint? Can you remove it from memory?
This question may be partially irrelevant under Windows since
Windows handles much memory stuff automatically. However, it may
not completely be so since the screen review program may affect
your DOS use. Also, does the package use large amounts of memory
so that you would want to increase available memory over the
recommended minimums for OS/2, Windows 3.1, or the Mac?
6. Navigation: How do you navigate around the screen? Discuss
reading units, character, word, sentence, line, paragraph,
screen, entire document, etc. Is there a review mode? An audio
cursor? Can you route the real cursor or the review/audio
cursor? How do you move the mouse pointer and click the mouse?
How do you find the pointer or does the software ignore it? Can
you use the real mouse? If so, what aids are provided to assist
you, and how do they work? Do regular Windows navigating
commands work properly? Does the program have a method for
telling you where an object is on the screen, such as in inches
from the edge, or by the number of pixels from the edge? Is this
information useful and reliable? Does the package preserve the
"look and feel" of Windows, or does it interpret Windows
metaphors for you into steps that seem more speech-oriented?
7. Settings: How do you set things: speech rate, tone, pitch,
punctuation level, capitalization alert, etc.?
8. Configuring: Do you need to configure? How do you do it?
How difficult is it? How do you define windows, silent areas,
monitors etc.? How does it handle unknown icons and other
unknown graphical objects? How do you define these unknown
objects? How can or do you configure for Windows applications?
9. Monitoring: Can it monitor different areas of the screen
and notify you of changes? How do you set it up? How well does
it work? What options are there: beeping, chaining windows,
etc.? Some of this is going to be unimportant in Windows.
However, additions could include, whether it reads dialog boxes
automatically and reads other messages, wizards, and other text
items that appear on the screen at different places?
10. Alternative cursors: Can the program track an alternate
cursor, highlight bar, ASCII character, soft cursor, etc.? How
do you set it up? How well does it work? How well does it track
the Mouse Pointer, Insertion Bar, and other graphical mouse
11. Attributes: How do you identify attributes: background and
foreground color, extended ASCII characters, highlighted text,
bold and/or underlined text, font size and appearance, grayed out
objects, etc.? How can you use this information? How much of it
is important in Windows and other GUI's? If you change the
color, position, etc., of objects on the screen, does the system
12. Searching: Can you search for things on the screen,
character strings, attributes, icons, mouse pointers, etc.? How
well does it work? What can you do with it?
13. Keyboard: How is the key response? Are there keyboard
conflicts, and how can you get around them? Is there a
pass-through key? Can you tell if the CAPS LOCK key is down?
Can you find out the status of other toggle keys? Do the Windows
keyboard commands all work? Are there keyboard provisions for
mouse movements, and how do they work? If the application
requires a mouse, what can be done? Can you "drag and drop"
objects, and if so, how?
14. Macros: Does the program have built-in macro capability?
If so, describe. Is there provision for macros from an external
15. Pre-defined configurations: Does the program come with
pre-defined configurations for popular software packages? If so,
how many and what? Are there other configurations available via
the company, dealers, or a BBS? How well do any available
configurations work? Are there configurations available for DOS,
Windows, and/or other programs from other operating systems?
16. Autoloading: Does the program autoload configurations? If
so, how does it work, and how well does it work? If not, what
other provision is there?
17. Pronunciation: Can you change how things are pronounced?
Is there an exceptions dictionary? If so, how does it work, and
how well does it work?
18. Responsiveness: How responsive is the software? Does it
require a fast machine? Does it eat up lots of CPU cycles? Does
it adversely affect other applications? How well does it handle
DOS and Windows sessions simultaneously?
19. DOS Sessions: How does the program work with DOS
applications? Do you have to or need to load a DOS screen reader
first? Does it support full DOS applications itself? Does it
work with DOS applications without loading Windows?
20. Applications: How well does the access product work with
the leading Windows software? How well does it work with
applications for which there is not a specific configuration?
Does it keep the focus, or does it ever get lost? Does it work
with the Windows and/or OS/2 Applets?
21. Stability: some of the Microsoft Windows access products
have problems with stability. Does the product under question
lock up? If so, can you tell when, how and/or why?
22. Support for sighted people: Do the menus appear on the
screen, or just in speech? How well does it help a sighted
assistant, highlighting review cursor, etc.? Can it easily be
shut up if a sighted person must use your computer? If the
menus, dialogues, etc. appear on screen, do they look and act
like standard Windows objects, like DOS sessions, or what?
23. Documentation: How is the documentation? What formats
does it come in? How good is it? Is on-line documentation only
available once you have speech and/or Windows up and running?
24. On-line help: Is there on-line help? How does it work?
How good is it? Is it context-sensitive?
25. Technical support: Is there technical support and help
available from the company? Is it toll-free? How good is it?
Does the company have an update policy? If so, how are updates
made available and how often do they appear?
In addition, we used somewhat different procedures for
evaluating most of the GUI programs, excluding outSpoken for the
Macintosh. We acquired ten of the best-selling Windows
applications and installed them on a 486 DX2/66 Mhz computer
which was used for most of the testing. Our reviews will in part
discuss how well the different Microsoft Windows access packages
worked with these commercial off-the-shelf applications.
The applications we tested are:
A. Lotus Smart Suite release 2 for Windows
1. 1-2-3 release 4.01
2. AmiPro release 3.01
3. Freelance Graphics release 2.01
4. Adobe type manager
5. Organizer release 1.1
6. Approach release 1.2
B. Borland Office 2.0 for Windows
1. WordPerfect release 6.0
2. Quattro Pro release 5.0
3. Paradox release 4.5
C. Microsoft Office Professional 4.3 for Windows
1. Word release 6.0a
2. Excel release 5.0a
3. Access release 2.0
D. Microsoft Money release 3.0
E. CompuServe Information Manager for Windows release 1.2
F. Quicken for Windows release 3
As mentioned in the initial introduction to this document,
the application tests were done by a sighted consultant.
Unfortunately, not all of the programs catch everything that is
happening on the screen, so sighted assistance can still be
helpful. Some day soon we hope this is no longer the case.
We also employed more of a narrative style in this section.
We described some of our problems and experiences in detail
because they were new to us and will be new to most of you as
Time did not permit us to test adequately database programs.
We plan on adding those results to this document some time in the
outSpoken for Windows
OutSPOKEN is a very solid screen review program. The
process of capturing and storing the screen text seems flawless.
It never reported anything that was not on the screen, nor did
it fail to report anything that was on the screen. OSW should
announce window titles as they appear, especially error message
boxes. It would be very helpful if OSW could follow the visual
focus in spreadsheets. It would make them accessible as well.
It would also be nice to have some customization facility for hot
spots, special keys, outSPOKEN Preferences used with a specific
application, etc. Response time was good throughout and no
product failures of any kind were experienced.
OutSPOKEN for Windows has taken a unique but overall a
successful approach to Microsoft Windows 3.1 access. Like its
Mac big brother, it primarily uses the mouse pointer as the
navigation metaphor. This makes for a largely manual process,
that is, there is a lot of pointer movement that is required with
most applications; however, it leaves decisions up to the end
user, not the software--which may not make the right decisions.
It is also a good way to learn about Windows, since exploration
is necessary when moving the pointer. Berkeley is in the process
of releasing version 1.1 of outSPOKEN for Windows as we write
this. It offers the ability to read dialogue boxes automatically
as they pop up, which should make for a little less pointer
manipulation. Version 1.1 also allows for the continuous reading
of a document when working in a word processor.
All in all, outSPOKEN for Windows is our current favorite
for Windows screen review programs. However, we have yet to test
JAWS for Windows and Screen Power for Windows. Slimware Window
Bridge has just released a major upgrade, and others are making
improvements all the time. There is, as with DOS screen review
programs, no one best universal package.
Berkeley Systems Inc.
2095 Rose St.
Berkeley, CA 94709
Phone (510) 540-5535
FAX (510) 849-9426
Protalk for Windows
Protalk provides reasonable access to those programs that it
lists in its documentation. With the exception of Excel, we were
able to complete all the tasks listed in our tests. However,
there are many times that little things are a hindrance and some
major flaws exist even in the approved applications, such as
General Protection Faults that cause a reboot. It does not seem
that any applications other than the approved ones are very
accessible. It would also be nice to have some special functions
in certain areas of applications, like spell checking. While the
Item Manager and the Menu Manager always seem to give the user
complete access to Windows commands, using regular Windows
keyboard commands does not always work. For example, when
switching from group to group with the CONTROL-TAB command,
Protalk does not always say the name of the window you land on.
Further, sometimes when using an application such as Write,
speech disappears. Pushing the Second Function key twice
refreshes the screen and gets speech back, but these things
shouldn't be happening. Biolink has not updated the product
recently and no new "PDF" files have been offered since the
program was introduced. The company reports that they are
working on versions for Windows NT and Windows 95. It is our
belief that they are putting their energy and efforts into these
products and are unlikely to improve the Windows 3.1 version of
Protalk for Windows in any substantial way, if at all. Finally,
the package is on the expensive side. Except for the use of
multimedia sound cards, Protalk has little else to recommend it.
Biolink Computer Research and Development Ltd., 4770 Glenwood
Avenue, North Vancouver, B.C., Canada V7R 4G8; telephone (604)
984-4099; fax (604) 985-8493; BBS (604) 985-8431.
SLIMWARE WINDOW BRIDGE
Slimware Window Bridge is a good Windows access product. It
has an almost overwhelming number of commands and functions and
provides an extensive configuration capability. Those
configurations shipped with the product are good, but much more
could be done with read areas and monitors. Spreadsheets
especially could use configuration help to make them more
accessible. It does seem that SWB's off screen model (data base
of screen contents) gets confused from time to time. It is
necessary to remember that a lot of complex activity goes on
regularly in Windows. The "refresh" key helps a lot, but it
depends on the user's knowing that the model and screen are not
the same. Overall, SWB provides a good means of using Windows
for the user who is blind, even with programs that have no
Syntha-Voice Computers, Inc., 800 Queenston Road, Suite 304,
Stony Creek, Ontario, Canada L8G 1A7; telephone (905) 662-0565;
fax (905) 662-0568; BBS (905) 662-0569; E-mail
Even though they are not native Windows programs, OS/2 and
Screen Reader/2 warrant a serious look by those who need to run
Windows applications. The system is stable and reliable for the
most part. Its off-screen model, the underlying software that
converts GUI elements and text into a form that speech software
can use, is one of the best on the market, if not the best. It
rarely gets confused, as some do. IBM has put a lot of time and
effort into making this system operate well. More profiles are
needed, and technical support remains a question, but on the
whole, we like it very much.
IBM Corporation, Special Needs Systems, 1000 Northwest 51st
Street, Boca Raton, Florida 33432; telephone (800) 426-4832;
Support (800) 426-8637.
Price: *$600 to $743 approximately
Deane Blazie, President of Blazie Engineering, has stated
that it is his intent to make Windows Master the best access
program on the market. Unfortunately, the program has a long way
to go. Its major problems include poor documentation,
instability with some applications, excessive speech, the
inability to recognize toolbar icons, and a lack of features and
configurations. Blazie has a reputation for prematurely
releasing software and allowing users to do the beta testing.
The company also generally sticks with things until they are
right. We hope that they are able to do so with Windows Master,
because as it now stands, the program is virtually useless. It
would be very difficult to accomplish any amount of serious work
Blazie Engineering, Inc., 109 East Jarrettsville Road, Forest
Hill, Maryland 21050; telephone (410) 893-9333; fax (410)
836-5040; E-mail Telnet to Blazie.com or write to (first
name)@blazie.com where (first name) is the name of the person you
wish to reach.
We found WV to be "rock solid" in its access to the groups
of items contained in the Program Manager. Standard dialogues
like that for the Desktop were completely accessible. Moving the
mouse pointer over icons causes WV to speak their associated
text, even though the WV manual discourages the use of the
physical mouse. WV even figures out words that go together, like
multi-word titles for group boxes, and speaks them together as
the mouse pointer moves over them.
Menu items are reported correctly, including checked items;
but the fast path keys are not spoken, nor were ellipses at the
end of menu items. These ellipses are important to let the user
know that more is to come if that item is selected. WinVision is
a good Windows screen reader. It always seems to have a good
model of the screen, so the user is never subject to incorrect
reading of screen information.
WV really suffers from a lack of application configurations.
If those were provided, this product would really do a good job.
Artic also needs to figure out why cell contents were not read in
1-2-3 and Quattro Pro. Artic has released Version 2.x of
WinVision. It offers additional configurations, the ability to
read titles and field names above the data entry box, and many
other improvements. We did not have time to test completely the
beta version of the 2.16 release but hope to do so in the future.
This new release should make WinVision a very strong competitor.
Artic Technologies International, 55 Park Street, Suite 2, Troy
Michigan 48083-2753; telephone (810) 588-7370; fax (810)
588-2650; BBS (810) 588-1424; technical support East Coast (810)
588-1425; technical support West Coast (209) 291-3645.
Prices: Business Vision $495, WinVision $495, SynPhonix 210 and
215 $395, SynPhonix 315 for Microchannel computers $495,
Transport $895, Transport with Businessvision $1295.
OutSPOKEN for the Macintosh
Overall, outSPOKEN for the Macintosh does an adequate job of
providing blind and visually impaired people with access to the
Apple Macintosh. However, it would be nice if Berkeley Systems
would pay more attention to the Mac. It seems as though the bulk
of their time is spent on developing outSPOKEN for Windows and
that updates for the Mac have been virtually nonexistent. It's
understandable that Berkeley is devoting time to the IBM, given
its popularity in the blind community, but more and more
companies are using the Macintosh.
We have also recently become somewhat concerned because of
organizational changes at Berkeley. For those who may not know,
Berkeley Systems writes and sells commercial software primarily.
Their flagship product is the "After Dark" screen saver line.
They have recently separated the access division that makes the
outSpoken and enLarge products from the main corporation. The
access division will now have to be self-supporting, without
major cash infusions from the parent company. Since Berkeley has
been disappointed with sales anyway, this move can't bode well
for the future of Berkeley Access.
Berkeley Systems, Inc., 2095 Rose Street, Berkeley, California
94709; telephone (510) 540-5535; fax (510) 849-9426; E-mail
Price: $495.00 for Macintosh
$595.00 for Windows
This document has attempted to provide the reader with
comprehensive and comparative data on all of the screen review
systems that are currently and generally available. We view this
as a first effort and as a living document. We intend to add new
products to it as they become available. We hope to add new
information and comparisons as time permits and as the
International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind
develops this information. This could include an Appendix on
speech synthesizers, tables and charts more directly comparing
competing features, and maybe even a rating system.
It is our hope that we can provide you with enough
information to make wise purchasing decisions. Because of the
sheer amount of information present, this could be difficult. If
you need help, please give us a call at the International Braille
and Technology Center for the Blind. We will help you sort out
the issues and tell you of new information we have learned. If
you are in the Baltimore area, make an appointment to drop in and
see us. We are more than happy to show you any technology in the
International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind.
David Andrews, Director
International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind
National Federation of the Blind
June 28, 1995