Skip to main content

Part A: Introduction

This Guide was written in an attempt to relieve some of the concern about accessing Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs, pronounced gooeys), in particular Microsoft (MS) Windows, by describing the fundamental concepts behind Windows especially for visually disabled users, and providing enough keyboard commands that the new user, already familiar with computers, could comfortably start to work in this novel environment.

What is the problem caused by GUIs?

In the past, accessing DOS applications has been possible because all the information on the screen is text-based: every item on the screen has a coded value - an ASCII character value and a colour value. There is a standard array of character positions arranged in 25 rows and 80 columns. Even when the applications became more graphical, using menu bars, pop-up messages and pull-down menus, standard screen-readers (software which interprets what is on the screen and passes it to a speech synthesiser or to a braille display) were able to follow these developments. This was because the more pictorial information was still based on ASCII characters and was displayed in highly restricted positions on the screen.

The problem for screen-readers posed by GUIs is that now they can no longer read exactly what is on the screen. This comes from the new way in which the information is passed to the screen. Instead of displaying ASCII characters with coded values, the screen is made up of hundreds of tiny dots, called pixels, on a grid 480 by 640. These dots simply have a colour, and depending on the grouping of these coloured dots, different objects are displayed. This is what makes verbalisation of the information on the screen much more difficult. Screen-readers must now be able to pick out elements that will make what is on the screen meaningful, so the user can respond appropriately.

To do this, program writers must build an overlay model of objects and events in the GUI interface, which is called an "Off Screen Model", which is used to guide how the access software looks deeper into the program code, to make sense of that the dots really are, and to translate it into something useful in speech or braille. In addition, Windows can display information anywhere on the screen, in any size, and screen-readers must be able to identify where to focus at any moment. DOS made this easy, as tracking the position of your cursor focuses on the place you are working. But Windows has multiple cursors and many possible screen positions for these different cursors, which makes tracking events more difficult.

The place where the information about these graphically presented events and cursors can be grabbed by the access program - the step between the traditional ASCII bits and bytes and the exterior graphic, is known as a "hook". The encouraging news is that manufacturers of commercial software are agreeing to demands that they leave these "hooks" available to developers of access systems.

There seems to be a general feeling that visually disabled people will never be able to work with Windows, but there is a lot of work in this field which should encourage prospective users. Not only are there access technologies making it possible to use GUIs, commercial writers are leaving in hooks for these developers, and also training and support are being developed to facilitate effective use of the GUI by the visually disabled user. Although the GUI may not be everyone's favourite interface to their computer (even among sighted users), it is a fact of life that the GUI will probably replace most DOS applications in the next few years, and this will have a dramatic effect on all of us at work, and also in our homes.

This Guide is designed to dispel some of this anti-GUI feeling, and to reassure prospective users that there is a good chance that they will be able to work as effectively with GUIs as sighted users. The author believes that once users understand the simple concepts behind Windows and its applications, they will find it much easier to work in Windows with whatever access technology they have available to them. The training of visually disabled users in Windows requires a different strategy to training users in a single-command line system, since users cannot see the screen as a whole, and concepts are therefore not easily recognised. This Guide is intended to help relieve this problem, and is based on the training which was part of the EU project "Graphical User Interfaces for Blind Persons, (GUIB) Project". During this training, tactile diagrams were used, to illustrate the screen at various times, which proved useful in making the descriptions clearer.

This document introduces visually disabled users to the concepts behind MS-Windows, and describes enough of the basic functionality to get you started in Windows. The description of the fundamental elements of Windows and its applications, and what to do with them, should give you sufficient knowledge so that you can start to work in Windows applications on your own. However, it is certainly not the only documentation you will need to work effectively in Windows. There are many books introducing new (sighted) users to Windows, which contain useful introductory sections on Windows basics, although the descriptions of interaction with objects on the screen are often along the lines of "clicking on the minimise button minimises the window to an application icon on the desktop", with no further description. This is obviously not of great use to the visually disabled new user.

However, as the importance of producing documentation for non-sighted users spreads to those in authority, appropriate documentation is being written, and Microsoft manuals are being made accessible, and institutions are producing useful books, for example, Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic have an Introductory tape/disk on Windows 3.1, and a book "Windows from the Keyboard" by Nicholas Baran should be available from the RNIB library (UK) in braille by now, but National Braille Press are the distributers. Microsoft in Reading also have a free "Microsoft Access to Windows Software Pack", which includes details on keyboard mousing.

I am not trying to sell you Windows, but there are some very good reasons why Windows has become so popular among sighted users. It has made DOS more accessible for everyday use, and makes it easier for less experienced users to work with their computer's disks, files and applications, by providing lots of prompts. The graphical user interface allows for powerful and flexible presentation of lots of information at the same time. Windows allows you to run more than one application at the same time. There is no restriction on the amount of memory Windows can use: its applications can use as much memory as the computer can hold. To make life even easier, Windows encourages a common look and feel for its applications. Windows 3.1 is not an operating system. It is an operating environment that sits on top of DOS, and DOS remains the underlying control program for the computer. Windows provides many new functions that DOS alone does not.

This Guide specifically refers to MS-Windows 3.0 / 3.1. Microsoft's latest version, Windows '95, does look different, but some of the basic concepts still hold. This version was designed to be a more user friendly Windows to replace version 3.1, and has a special, (though not essential), keyboard with three extra keys for new functions. Before the description of Windows concepts it is important to note the difference between the use of the term Windows with a capital w: the name of the operating environment, and of windows with a lower case w: the rectangular areas on the screen in which you work. These differences will be described in the next section, Introducing Windows.