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Reviews

Peter Bosher, Chair of the British Computer Association of the Blind (1998-2001)

Published in 'Ability' (the disability magazine of the British Computer Society), January 2002.

When Microsoft Windows started its bid for desktop world domination in the early nineties, it looked to many as though the end was nigh for blind and partially sighted computer users. This happened at a time when many new job opportunities, in general office-based work as well as the more traditional computer-programming field, were opening up, thanks to the relative ease with which computers could be adapted for use with Braille, speech-synthesis or screen-magnification under the old MS-DOS operating system. Remember MS-DOS? You typed a command, and it said something back. This something was a text-string that could be easily spoken or Brailled. Admittedly, much of the time, what it said was "bad command or filename" but even that could be understood and translated into speech or Braille. Not so with Windows.

How on earth would a blind person be able to work in this new world where, to delete something, you had to find the picture of the dustbin with your mouse and click on it?

The answer to this took years to emerge, but one book, more than any other single piece of work, broke down this apparently immovable obstacle. That book was Sarah Morley's 'Windows Concepts'. Thanks to Sarah's work in researching how a wide range of visually impaired people were able to work effectively with these new user-interfaces with speech and Braille, she developed a remarkable insight, and understanding of how you perform tasks when you can't see the screen. She did this in two ways: by describing in clear non-visual terms what was actually happening on the screen, with the support of tactile diagrams for those who like to have an understanding of physical lay-out, and by explaining the functions of Windows concepts such as dialog boxes, radio buttons, check-boxes and so-on. Most importantly perhaps, she gave simple and clear instructions on how to achieve these tasks from the keyboard, eliminating the genuine difficulty presented by that wretched mouse.

'Windows Concepts' was followed by 'Windows 95 Explained', which had to reflect the significant changes from the original, extremely clunky windows 3.x, to the slicker, less accident-prone and generally more intuitive interface of Windows 95. That book built on the strengths of the original and has been the bible for PC trainers of visually impaired people. The value of Dr Morley's work was recognised when she was awarded the SAP Stevie Wonder Vision Pioneer prize in 1998.

So, what of 'Windows 98 Explained'? Why have I devoted the major part of this review to the first two books? Well simply because this one is, and declares itself to be, an update, or supplement, rather than a new stand-alone book.

If you are familiar with using Windows 95 without the screen, and you now have to update to Windows 98, then you will find this extremely helpful because it describes simply and clearly what the differences are, and how to re-configure your system so that it works optimally with speech, Braille or screen magnification. If you are coming to this as a Windows virgin, then you need to start with Windows 95 Explained, and then read the 98 book to get fully up-to-speed.

This short book contains a wealth of subtle but important changes which will make life far more productive: how to get rid of visual clutter by turning off the Active Desktop, how to have your folders and files listed in an understandable way rather than having to navigate a table of unknown layout, how to create shortcut keys, far easier incidentally than it was with Windows 95, how to use the built-in screen magnifier and adapted mouse-pointers, together with the functional changes from 95, such as the important Find and Help applications. There is also a useful section on how to have several configurations (user profiles) on the same machine, so that if a visually impaired person is sharing the machine with a sighted family, it can behave one way with speech, and another without.

In short, the good Dr Morley has done it again! This is a modest but essential addition to the collection of anybody who needs to understand for themselves, or teach visually impaired people how to use a PC. Similar works for the very latest flavours of Windows, Millennium and XP, are in that productive pipeline.

Windows 98 Explained: an overview for blind and visually impaired users, by Dr Sarah Morley with Anna Dresner, is available in print, Braille, tape or disk, and published in the UK by RNIB, Bakewell Road, Peterborough, PE2 6WS, Tel 08457 023 153.