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Opinion: How A Screenreader Made Me See More Clearly

I started using screenreaders over three years ago, with my first foray into the world with my Apple Mac’s Voiceover software, which comes built-in to every Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod, Apple TV, Apple Watch and even the HomePod nowadays! Basically if it’s got an Apple logo on it, it is reasonable to suggest it’s accessible to a blind user. My initial months were challenging, beginning with the difficulty to stay awake long enough to finish the (extremely boring and tiring) Voiceover tutorial. However, I knew it had to be done so persevered and eventually it paid off. Navigating with the Mac was clunky at best, with focus jumping around too much and the interaction model of navigation being quite irritating. If you’ve ever used it you’ll know that having to interact with a sidebar, for example, and then un-interact with it to get to the folder list can be tiresome, especially as I’d learn later that with other screenreaders you could just Tab over to the next area. It was a bizarre experience for me. I’d often lamented that the Mac experience was like a Sunday drive on a hot day with the roof down, whereas a PC was like driving to work on a Monday morning with queues of traffic and heavy rain.

Using the Mac had always been a ‘dipping the toe in the water’ approach anyway if I’m honest. At that stage, my vision would allow me to use the screen for reasonable periods of time, so perhaps I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I should have. From birth through my formative years, my visual impairment was always in front of me, in the sense that I knew I had VI issues, but day-to-day life was fairly normal and nothing extraordinary or challenging. With aids such as a magnifier and a large monitor on my desk, there was little I couldn’t do. I loved using computers from an early age – my earliest memory being a Mac PowerBook 180C that my school gave me to use for classwork – I adored that machine and it began my love affair with the colourful fruit company. I later owned a series of Mac products and currently have a MacBook Pro and Air 11″ which is ideal for basic tasks such as emails and blogging.

Image of PowerBook 180c with grayscale screen and mouse ball for a trackpad

As I entered the workforce, my interests in computing were heightened by the use of Windows PCs. I rarely used them outside of work so it was a bit of a novelty. Accessibility may well have been there but I didn’t really use it. I just increased the font size and leant in close to see the rest. I was lucky to be able to do that. As I progressed through my career I began to feel the ability to look close and see what I was looking at clearly was diminishing. It was a very gradual change and wasn’t particularly alarming, but it did make me think more about my visual impairment.

In 2007 I was offered an amazing opportunity at RNIB, the Royal National Institute of Blind People. The charity had recently created a radio station and I just had to be part of it. Having a visual impairment and loving radio – it seemed perfect. And it was. A great team of guys and girls dedicated to something meaningful and impactful. It sounds like corporate jargon but I promise you its not. Working for the RNIB didn’t just make me feel like I was helping other blind people to live the lives they wanted, instead I felt it was helping me identify and accept that I was also a visually impaired person.

Image of Steven Scott at the microphone in the RNIB radio studio

In 2015, this journey of acceptance came upon a particularly large bump in the road. I began getting headaches and feeling pain around my eyes. Lights began to irritate and annoy. I started to panic – was this the beginning of the end? Was my sight going to go completely? Doctors were confused and repeated what I’d heard since the first age I could remember – this shouldn’t happen. “Your sight should remain static at best” was the consistent statements from ophthalmic surgeons and consultants.

Little did I know that a year later, following a heart-related episode, my sight would fail further and faster. I therefore decided to try something new and make a bold step. My sight was getting worse, to the level where staring at the screen, even with Zoomtext at 6x magnification, just wasn’t cutting it anymore. The headaches were too extreme and the need to get work done correctly and efficiently was on the slide. It was time to learn how to use a screenreader properly this time.

As I work with Windows all of the time I knew it was probably going to be JAWS that I would choose. Despite my love affair with the Mac, I had to be realistic. Plus, as I am an audio editor and use Adobe Audition on the PC I knew it really was the only option. But it seemed so daunting, and everyone I met who used it would tell me how big a program it was and how much you could do with it. Even when I researched for basic getting-started guides online I couldn’t find anything that made any sense to me.

Throughout my career and even in my personal life I’ve often found that the only way to figure something out is to just go ahead and figure it out. Turn on the device and start mucking around with it. Pull something apart only to put it back together again and have a better understanding how it works. So that was the mentality I brought to learning JAWS. And it was needed. It really is a huge program with lots and lots of features but realistically there are only a few things you need to know. Windows key gets you to the start menu to find your programs, and arrow keys, tab and F6 are your new best friends. Those keys help you easily access the system and with some additional JAWS commands (my favourite being Insert-Down Arrow which lets me read an entire email or document once I’ve opened it) really helps me get things done.

By turning off the screen, or closing the lid of the laptop which I did, I was able to fully immerse myself in this new world of how to operate Windows. The visual memory was helpful to remember where I was and where I perhaps wasn’t but by closing the lid that visual memory didn’t stand in my way.

In my first few weeks I was frustrated, angry and resentful that I had to use it, but by the fourth and fifth week I was noticing my productivity improve, with emails being read and responded to faster.

In the second month I tackled audio editing and although Adobe Audition would not be my recommended audio editor of choice for a blind user I was able to manipulate the keystrokes to suit me so I could at least do single track editing without the screen. The sense of relief after that first edit almost brought tears to my eyes, but the biggest surprise was my technique of editing had changed in the best possible way. I was actually listening properly to my edits and not relying on my eyes to see a waveform to edit visually.

I believe I’m now a much better audio editor these days and I can certainly do more with my computer much more quickly. Learning the software will always be a challenge but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If you are at the stage where your nose is up against the screen and you spend more time buying paracetamol for headaches than getting anything productive done, download the free 40-minute demo of JAWS from their website and give it a go.

Maybe those sighted folk were right all along – our other senses maybe are better when sight is impaired.

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