Reading and Writing Blind with My Buddy Called JAWS

Editor’s note: Our last installment for National Reading Month.

by Maribel Steel

Maribel with computer open and headsets on

Have you ever wondered how people who are blind or visually-impaired are able to operate a computer without seeing the screen? How do they move around in cyberspace without cursing the cursor? Well, they use specialized technology to retain independence by learning to log-in to life using a variety of software choices.

If you are noticing signs of your sight deteriorating or you are experiencing difficulties staying on top of visual tasks on the computer and beginning to squint at the screen, relax those eyes and reassure any fears. Your ability to stay in control of your computer skills doesn’t have to fly out the next installment of Windows.

Meet JAWS, My Office Buddy

One such software program is called JAWS – Job Access With Speech. It is a screen reading program (software program that allows blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer or braille display. It was originally designed and released in 1989 by a motorcycle racer, Ted Henter, who lost his sight in an unfortunate car accident. These days, Freedom Scientific currently owns the licensing agreement and is responsible for all modifications and regularly updates the program to stay on the racetrack of technology.

As an office buddy, JAWS can talk you through every aspect of operating your computer. A synthesized voice of your choice (in eighteen languages) can guide you through every task, such as composing drafts, storing documents to folders, reading and sending emails, creating posts for blogs and surfing the internet – all without having to ever squint at your screen again. JAWS stays by your side to announce every single key on your keyboard as you type and has replaced the need to use a computer mouse by assigning various keys as ‘function’ and ‘hot keys’ that will announce its name and function clearly.

These special combinations of keys enable JAWS to read one word at a time or one complete line. Your office buddy can announce selected text, flick between open windows, and keep you company while you surf the internet. What a friend!

Coming Out of the Dark Ages

Before the age of home computers, I used an electric typewriter and magnifying glass to attempt reading and writing, or asked family members to take on some of these tedious tasks as my eyesight worsened. I hadn’t learned braille and I didn’t feel I could take on learning a ‘new language’ while raising a young family. In all honesty, it was more like proud resistance that kept me living in my own dark age.

While others were happy to take on the task of typing up my study notes on my behalf, the need to spend time in adapting to new technologies didn’t seem important. Until…

I heard more and more from my family and friends about a new craze called “surfing the net” and realized I was seriously missing out on an entire world of possibilities. I was eager to jump aboard and surf the net too, but how?

Training and Overcoming the Tech Challenge

It was in 2000 when my confidence as an independent writer soared to new heights. I embraced my “technically-challenged” fears by enrolling in a series of free training sessions at Vision Australia. This was when I met JAWS, my new office buddy. It took several months of patience and persistence to understand how my buddy functioned and how to adapt to the robotic voice. I learned to let JAWS guide me verbally through the computer maze from start up to shut down and I learned how to push “his” buttons without even upsetting him! The key was in taking each lesson step by step and allowing my small achievements to gradually add up to a brand new skill. The process became easier and more logical and self-confidence grew, one key command at a time. It was exhilarating to be surfing the internet with my friends and more importantly, to be doing it all by myself!

Take a Step to Learn More about JAWS

JAWS is one of many products on the market under the banner of Access Technology. As I am not an expert in other screen readers and braille devices, you can read more about them on the AFB Product Database page.

So try JAWS and see how you get on. JAWS may not be for everyone but this screen reading program opened up a world of possibilities and new career options for me. If you would like to experience JAWS for yourself, you can download a free demonstration.

Further Reading

Using a Computer. This article discusses screen magnification as other screen reading programs such as Window Eyes and Zoom Text.

Jaws Training Bundle. Read up on JAWS training.

AccessWorld. Read AccessWorld for the latest updates on access technology.