by Jamie Pauls
Reprinted with permission from “AccessWorld,” vol. 16 no. 6, June 2015.
Every person who is blind or visually impaired and reading AccessWorld would probably be more than willing to attest to the importance of technology in their daily lives. An accessible computer plays a prominent role in reading books, dealing with mail, managing finances, and completing job-related projects. Advancements in mobile technology from the smartphone to the Apple Watch have only increased the power and freedom of the blind and low-vision community. It's not uncommon to find people who are blind comparing notes on how many screen readers are installed on their systems, or lamenting the fact that 800 words per minute is just not quite fast enough to skim through all the documentation that needs to be read in one day.
But what about those who, through motor or neurological impairment, find it difficult to quickly navigate a computer keyboard or remember a large number of screen-reader commands? What options are available to the newly blinded veteran who is in the process of adjusting to significant injury, or the senior citizen who finds herself quickly losing her vision with no prior computing experience to rely on at all? In this article, we will take a look at Dolphin Guide, hereafter referred to simply as Guide, a screen reading solution from Dolphin Computer Access that seeks to meet the needs of those who might find traditional mainstream and access technology to be difficult to master.
What Is Guide?
More than just a screen reader, Guide is a suite of applications intended to help users with visual impairments who are brand new to computers, or who are unable to complete complex, multi-step tasks. The application strives to meet the needs of someone who has never touched a computer, while providing the flexibility for that person to improve his computing skills in order to move on to fairly advanced computing tasks such as managing files, taking care of finances, and engaging in leisure activities such as making Skype calls and enjoying movies and music. While providing as much flexibility as possible, the developers of Guide have been careful to break all tasks down into simplified steps, and to provide clear, consistent feedback about what is happening on the computer screen at all times. When evaluating Guide, it is important to remember that the software has been developed for three types of users:
- Someone who has no prior computing experience whatsoever;
- Someone with a motor impairment who would find it difficult to carry out a series of keystrokes; and
- Someone with a neurological impairment who would have difficulty remembering keystrokes and/or multistep actions.
How Guide Presents Information
Guide presents all tasks as numbered menu items. At the main menu, for example, you will hear instructions such as “Press 1 for E-mail; Press 2 to write a letter or document …” It is possible to access these menus using the arrow keys or by directly typing the appropriate number on the keyboard. There are nine items on the main menu, with submenus under the main items, so all choices are easily available via direct number access.
I installed the 30-day demonstration of Guide, available from the Dolphin web site. As is typical of most programs, there is a simple install along with the option to customize the installation if you’re comfortable with that kind of thing. I chose the simple installation option and followed the prompts with no difficulty. Guide provided a recurring “please wait” message as files were being installed. NVDA was running during the Guide install, so I had the benefit of NVDA’s progress beeps as well as Guide’s prompts. I instructed Guide not to load at start-up. Guide loaded with Nuance’s familiar Vocalizer Tom voice after I rebooted my computer following initial installation, but did not load on subsequent reboots, which was my preference. Guide can be started at any time with CTRL + Shift + G. The program can be shut down by pressing the ESC key until a menu is reached which allows the user to either shut down Guide and leave the computer running, or shut down the software and turn off the computer. A chime and message announce the launch and exit of Guide.
Using E-mail with Guide
It is almost impossible to think about using a computer without considering e-mail. Guide handles e-mail in a straightforward manner that also allows for some flexibility. A Gmail account is recommended, although other providers may work as well. It is possible to use a wizard — which will provide step-by-step assistance — to set up e-mail, or customize settings as needed. Guide announces the number of the message that is being downloaded, and reads the entire message on request. The F8 key starts document reading if Guide’s automatic reading has been interrupted, and F9 stops reading. Standard arrow key navigation and text selection is possible, but Guide provides an interesting alternative to traditional document navigation. The F4 key moves back one word at a time in the document, while F5 moves forward one word at a time. The F3 key moves back a sentence at a time while F6 moves forward through the document by sentence. This key placement allows for an identifiable gap between the backward navigation keys and the forward navigation keys. The F1 key can be pressed at any time when using Guide for help. If the user doesn’t remember how to work with a message, F1 will provide a comprehensive set of commands for working with messages.
While Guide’s e-mail client might not appeal to the power user who reads hundreds of messages per day, the beginning or more novice user who simply wishes to communicate with friends and family will find it more than adequate. It is possible to act on several messages at once by selecting them with the spacebar. They can be deleted, moved to folders for later action, and pretty much anything else one would expect.
Working with Documents in Guide
If e-mail is important to every computer user, working with documents has to tie for first place. Whether it’s writing a letter, making a grocery list, or blogging, we all spend quite a bit of time using our word processor of choice. Guide covers the bases where this is concerned as well. Guide provides a letter-writing wizard that will make sure the document is properly formatted. If you’ve already entered addresses into Guide’s address book, it is simple to fill in all of the pertinent information for the recipient of the letter from there, or the address can be typed manually. Once the letter has been written, Guide will assist with printing the letter as well as addressing and printing an envelope. While working with documents, a press of the ESC key shows all the actions that can be performed on the document. If more information is needed, the F1 key brings up help.
A dictionary, thesaurus, and spell checker are also available, along with a friendly duck quack sound to let you know that a misspelled word has been detected. Finally, Guide provides ascending and descending tones as one moves through a document with the up and down arrow keys. The lower the tone, the farther down you are in the document. It is possible to select text and apply formatting such as bold, italics, underlining, etc. In short, I found document creation to be quite satisfactory with Guide.
Surfing the Web with Guide
Using a computer without being connected to the Internet is hard to imagine these days. The Internet continues to expand and provide an enormous amount of information from trivia to the latest world news. Guide provides its own web browser that can be operated in text-only mode, or as a more traditional browser showing both text and images on a web page. I chose to use the more traditional mode, and found the browser to be quite usable. By default, Guide loads a homepage that provides a description of how to surf the web with Guide. In addition to entering a URL from the address bar, you can search the web from there as well. Additionally, you can perform commands from the address bar such as typing the word “close” to exit the browser, and “links” to show a list of links on a webpage. Guide’s browser is optimized for those who will surf the web using the arrow keys, although other keys such as the tab key and the letter H to move from heading to heading are also available. I found that while I was able to move between headings on a web page with the letter H, Guide did not announce heading levels as most screen readers do.
I did not browse the web extensively with Guide, but I was able to navigate the Fox News site with no issues. This site is rather large, with a lot of links on the front page. Guide loaded the page quickly and performed all tasks as I would have expected.
Scanning and Reading Documents with Guide
Guide offers a full-featured scanning and reading solution for those who want to read a good paperback novel or check the day's mail. As with everything else I explored using the program, I found Guide’s step-by-step instructions for scanning and reading documents to be straightforward and easy to understand. Using Guide, it is possible to scan and read a single page, scan pages for later reading, and scan multiple pages while reading previously scanned material. Guide handles the reading of PDF files as well.
Reading Books and News Articles with Guide
Although a scanner is still a very useful tool in the blind computer user’s arsenal, there is no question that online publications have made reading books, news headlines, and magazine articles much easier for our community. There are a variety of options available to the Guide user. I browsed Bookshare with Guide, downloading a book and reading articles from a local newspaper. It is possible to move from section to section in an article with Guide, or to simply read from the beginning. I found Guide’s search functions and its handling of downloaded books to be quite speedy and easy to work with.
Accessing Music, Movies, and Podcasts with Guide
As important as it is to be productive with our computers, it is nice to be able to enjoy leisure activities as well. Guide facilitates the playing of music in digital format or from a CD. It is possible to rip CDs to your computer for later listening as well. One area where Guide stood out from the crowd for me was when I played a DVD of the Michael Jackson documentary “This Is It.” When I played the DVD on my Mac, there was a lot of information on the DVD that was difficult to wade through in order to get to the actual program. Guide was able to skip all of those unwanted extras and jump straight to the beginning of the program. It is also possible to move through a DVD by chapter or title. Guide’s Help function even told me that DVD chapters are often divided into five- or 10-minute increments, something of which I was not previously aware.
In addition to listening to music and movies, it is possible to subscribe to podcasts with Guide. Several podcasts are available by default, including CNN Hourly News and Reuters Top News. Guide provides feedback as podcasts download, and the media player is very simple to operate. Finally, Guide provides several Internet radio stations to round out the audio entertainment experience.
Other Guide Features
Guide’s address book was mentioned earlier in this article, but it is worth stating that adding addresses is quite easy to do. The only thing that I found a bit disconcerting was the fact that there are four lines for address details simply labeled as “line 1, line 2, line 3, and line 4.” I was expecting labels such as city, state, and zip code. This is probably due to the fact that I live in the United States and tend to think in those terms. Not all users are from the U.S. and addresses are handled differently in other countries.
Guide’s finance management options are very basic, taking a “money in and money out” approach. It is possible to view a summary of financial transactions within a range of dates as well. A calculator is also available from within Guide, and works as expected.
A basic appointment scheduler comes with Guide. I set an appointment and was given the option to be reminded five minutes beforehand if I desired. There was no chime, but only a verbal confirmation.
For the user with low vision, it is possible to scan handwritten text. It is also possible to make color or black-and-white photocopies of documents with Guide.
Very basic Skype functionality exists from within Guide, but it is not possible to view a list of contacts. It is, however, possible to enter a Skype username or dial a phone number if you have Skype credit.
There are several games included with Guide, including an anagram game and Hangman. Also, a typing tutor allows for improving your keyboarding skills. It is estimated that it takes between 12 and 20 hours to work through all the provided lessons.
No two people use their computers in exactly the same way, and Guide allows various settings to be changed including various low-vision options and voice rate, pitch, etc.
Overall Impressions of Dolphin Guide
Guide contains an array of programs and utilities for someone who is not an experienced computer user or who, for various reasons, may not be able to complete complex computing tasks. Guide provides simple, step-by-step instructions for completing projects in a safe, uncluttered environment.
I found that Guide did not sacrifice functionality for simplicity. Users of the product should be able to learn and gain confidence while completing tasks from the most basic keyboarding to more advanced actions such as creating folders, moving files, and working with multiple e-mail messages at once. Along with Guide’s aforementioned help facilities, remote assistance is possible if needed. Also, a user manual can be downloaded from the Dolphin website.
I would like to have received a bit more feedback when installing Guide, such as the percentage of the installation completed and possibly what components of the program were being installed. I would also like to have heard a chime of some sort when my appointment reminder came due. If the developers of Guide were able to provide a simple interface for Facebook, I believe that would be a real benefit to Guide users, but I realize this ball may be in Facebook’s court and not in the hands of the Guide development team. Finally, a basic Twitter client would also be beneficial to Guide users.
Overall, I was impressed with Guide’s consistent interface and attention to detail in every area. I would definitely recommend this product for anyone who needs assistance with basic computing skills, and who may not become a “power user” for any of the reasons mentioned previously in this article.
Dolphin Guide from Dolphin Computer Access