The following is a highly revised version of an essay I composed for a chemistry assignment, which got me third place in a science essay contest that told us to write about innovative things in science that affect you. Since there were two people who did better than me, according to the judges, let me just say that I could’ve done better, but to me, it was the best essay I ever wrote because the thing I wrote about has become so popular and widely used not only in the blind community, but for other disabilities as well. What do you think this thing is? Speech to text, and text to speech perhaps, but let me now provide a history of the screen reader as it should now be written today. And it dates even further back than Ted Henter and Henter Joyce, the founding company behind Freedom Scientific, which was later eaten up by Vector Freedom Optelec, or VFO group.
Imagine you’re a blind person going to work. What’s the first thing you do in the morning? What do you do when you get to the office? You sit down at the computer, that is if you’re an ordinary sighted person, but one of my nagging questions I get from sighted people is, “How do you use a computer? Or a phone?”
Since computer technology is so widely used, one must think of how a blind person can accomplish the same tasks as the sighted, and the answer is simple but complicated. Enter screen readers. The first fully functional corporate interest screen reader was designed by a company called Henter Joyce, designed and invented by a blind veteran who lost his sight. Ted Henter wanted to maintain his ability to work in an office or do professional things, so he invented JAWS. Today, many years after JAWS was invented, hardly a day goes by that you don’t notice other screen reading softwares out there. Henter spearheaded not only the invention of a screen reading software, but an entire movement based on the idea that blind people should have equal access to computer software such as Microsoft Word, that we should be equally able to maintain job skills, etc. JAWS, back in 2003 when the last essay was published, was barely able to allow you to write word processor documents, check email, browse the web, etc. Compared to now, you couldn’t just pop in a DVD and expect to see text in an image, but now you can. JAWS now has so many more capabilities than it did in 2003 when I composed an essay on its history and how it works. So how did Henter’s invention help blind people use computers?
Henter invented JAWS so that blind people could gain access to employee trainings, places of work, websites, word processors, charts, all kinds of stuff, but today, JAWS has some buddies that compete with it. Enter Steve Jobs and the folks at Apple, the company NV Access, Microsoft themselves, and finally, the highly evolved VFO. Apple has done something that not only VFO and Microsoft want to do, but can only dream of doing when it was done. Apple put Voiceover, a universally built in screen reading software, into everything from its iPhone to its Mac lineup to its wearable Watches. Voiceover has the ability to allow you to do the same things you would do with a Windows computer such as talk to folks on Skype, surf the web, type up essays on a word processor, and did I mention or forget to mention planning vacations, buying things online, etc. The wearable Apple has allows you to do specialized gestures with haptic feedback so that you can know when you are supposed to stand or get out and walk. The watch is more a fit bit with voiceover on it, though you can do other apps as well.
Cell phones such as those produced by Apple and Google now have screen reading functionality built in, and I tried to justify getting one of those by stating, it’s like a JAWS for cell phones. Well? It took me years to realize there was access to iPhones and androids, but I got my first touch screen phone in 2014 or so. I ended up getting two more new phones, and then … then, I got my iPhone SE. My iPhone allows me to not only make phone calls, facetime calls, and such things as this, it allows me to find hangout spots, navigate around the world, surf the web (why not!), check email, tweet, send Swarm check ins, and much more. There are games available that work with Voiceover and other screen reading software for the blind. For instance, I love playing DiceWorld, and it works on both Voiceover and Talkback as well as Amazon’s baby, Voiceview. Compared to other screen reading things, Voiceview right now doesn’t have keyboard support, but Amazon is working on it. This is their project, and after many years of no access to their Kindle lineup of books, Voiceview seems to have been the answer to the blind people’s prayers.
JAWS spearheaded many ideas as well as the ability for blind people to use a computer. Since it costs a lot of money, and since the average Joe blind person doesn’t make enough, not enough to support that price point, and since DVR, Departments of Vocational Rehabilitation, pay the bills for all purchases if not 90% of purchases for Braille and talking softwares for the blind, a movement has begun to include universal accessibility in product design. Henter would be proud because now, Microsoft is improving its Narrator screen reading software. It is now usable for Windows 10 builds, contains many familiar keystrokes, and the voices are much higher quality. Sighted people sometimes find those voices fun to play with, so if you search for Microsoft Sam on YouTube, you’ll find many creators who play with Sam and a bunch of other voices, which to blind people are so familiar they use it daily. Desktop David and Zira are among many other voices Windows now contains, and the Encore voices now use NVDA (non-visual desktop access), a free screen reader. NVDA is popular in developing countries such as India, and many blind people there are poorer than those in the U.S., but a company there managed to break the price for a Braille display down to $550 in U.S. dollars. Who knows how much that is in rupees? Indian currency is much more than American currency, but a display with that price in India made in India is hard to find.
Voiceover and voiceview both have Braille support, but JAWS has it even more. WindowEyes, a screen reading software from a now eaten up company called GW Micro, has since died. We blind people are eager to see where VFO tries to take the screen reader market, but for those average Joes who don’t work, buying a computer is the last thing on their minds. Enter tablets.
Amazon’s Kindle Fire lineup has their Voiceview screen reader, which allows you to read ebooks, do surfing on their Silk browser, and shop and many more, The highest price point on a tablet from Amazon is only $100. Now, I own the following pieces of tech that currently work, and all have semblances of screen readers on them.
I’m typing this using Chrome box, Google’s Chrome OS screen reader, on an HP Chromebook. I love it.
Then, we have a working iPod touch, two working phones, one a galaxy S8 with Samsung’s own Voice Assistant on it. Then we have two Fire tablets with Voiceview, then we have my iPhone of course. We are also playing with AI, so we have an Echo dot on the desk. Then we have a Google Home and a Google Home Mini, both of which have google’s AI on them. In tandem with our phones, we can control the home and echo devices, set them up independently, and do many more tasks. Henter wasn’t probably trying to spearhead what I call the Screen Reader Revolution, but many times we see it happening. My brothers use a gaming system, a Xbox to be exact. When they first did, Narrator wasn’t there. Now, Microsoft and Sony have both attempted to make gaming consoles usable for blind gamers, and Microsoft has done a landslide pound all over Sony, as must have happened and most of you know.
JAWS might never appear for Xbox, but the amazing invention of screen reading software has changed a blind person’s rank in society from the bottom to near the top. We still have to argue with employers about jobs, and we still have to contend with predators in guardianship cases, but blind people are going to be around no matter what sadism does to us. Screen readers have made it easier for us to work in executive positions, play video games, and edit essays. We can now keep track of our diabetes should we have it, our exercise, mail packages, and many other things thanks to developer commitment to making it all work with screen readers. JAWS was the first fully compatible thing but I never saw the ones for Mac, but now Macs have universal access design, and when I attended NFB convention, they got a big award for making their product usable for blind individuals.
Screen readers and their voices don’t just extend to blind people. You might recognize Steven Hawking’s voice when he was alive, and the man used Eloquence to talk to his audience. Neospeak voices have been used in other popular ways, have been plugged into transit announcements, and so much more. Another company might use Vocalizer Samantha which is popular on iPhones to announce stops on a transport train, alert weather conscious folks about storms, and so much more. Blind people and their sighted counterparts are now able to stand equally hand in hand with each other. The voices you hear alerting you to floods, bus stops, AI answers, and many more are the same voices that read the world to blind people who can’t see the screen.
While space travel is ambitious, I don’t think it will change the world as much as earthbound inventions such as the screen reader because sighted people don’t need to worry so much. Going to Mars could be dangerous, especially if a blind astronaut is not chosen for the mission. So, what can impact people more than rocketing into space? Answer: screen reading software and text to speech voices hands down. Everybody can understand each other, and even more so, text to Braille will make it even easier for deaf blind individuals to work and communicate. Yes, braille display software and hardware are expensive, but we can’t leave our deaf friends out.
Thank you all for reading.