Library Opens Another Window For the Blind
Fingers paused above the keyboard, James Davis narrows down his selection to five hits in the library’s online catalog. He’s browsing through a group of new audio releases. Nearby his computer mouse sleeps, unwanted, as Davis nimbly navigates his screen using a mental index of keyboard shortcuts.
Like other patrons at the Waukegan Public Library, Davis uses a PC for a slew of activities. He searches the library catalog, surfs the Net, writes letters and updates his resume. Unlike other patrons, Davis is 90 percent blind. He relies on a screen reading software called JAWS (Job Access With Speech) to give him the ability to work on a computer using the same programs and applications as a sighted person.
“JAWS lets me read word by word, letter by letter or line by line,” said Davis. “It gives me audible feedback as I go.”
Since 1963, Davis has relied on a keen sense of hearing to help offset his loss of sight. He contracted optic atrophy while growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, and within six months his vision was all but gone. Davis attended residential school, where he learned to read and write in Braille. In his planner he keeps a thick stack of cream-colored cards studded with notes and appointments.
Davis is one of more than 25 million American adults living with significant vision loss, according to the American Federation of the Blind. In the 1980s, computer engineers began introducing screen reading software that would enable people with impaired vision to work on a computer. Screen readers give voice to anything that appears on a computer screen, from a personal letter to a website to a spreadsheet.
Window-Eyes, another screen reading software, gave Davis his start on a computer. About 10 years ago he converted to JAWS after taking an introductory course at The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired. JAWS is currently the most widely used screen reader worldwide.
“It’s easy to use once you memorize the hot keys,” said Davis. “I really like the sound quality.”
Access to New Opportunities
Many people first learn to use JAWS on the job, says Ray Campbell, adaptive technology specialist at The Chicago Lighthouse. The acronym touts “Job Access” because the software allows those with limited vision to work in careers involving computers, taking on responsibilities they wouldn’t otherwise be able to perform.
On the job, JAWS can offer increased accessibility. Off the job, it’s not so easily accessible. Priced around $1,000, JAWS can take a big chomp out of a household budget.
“Because of the expense of JAWS, many people can’t afford to purchase it themselves,” said Campbell. “So it’s very important that they have access to it in public places like the library.” Unfortunately, not all libraries can afford to purchase screen reading software either. In Lake County, Illinois, where Davis lives, the Waukegan Public Library is one of the only public libraries equipped with a screen reader.
Some libraries offer screen magnifiers to help enlarge the screen content. At about $50 each, magnifiers are an affordable way to assist those with low vision, but offer no help to those who are blind.
“I’ve always been interested in adaptive technology,” says Richard Lee, executive director at the Waukegan Public Library. “We’re here to serve this whole community, so we have to find ways to tailor our offerings to fit the needs of all of our patrons.” When Davis requested a screen reader at the library, the director began researching his purchase.
Lee discovered he needed to not only find room in his budget, but room in his library. JAWS is loud. To prevent the software’s synthesized voice from disturbing other patrons, Lee had it installed in an existing private tutoring room. Patrons who want to use JAWS need to reserve the room in two-hour increments.
A librarian can assist patrons in launching the software, but after that, they’re on their own. Currently the library does not have staff trained on JAWS, so the software is intended for use only by those who already know how to use it. That group, according to Campbell, includes most any visually impaired person “from a student on up.”
Davis worries that the popularity of screen readers will eventually eclipse other communication tools for the visually impaired, such as Braille.
In that sense, too, he’s like other patrons at the library—hanging in the balance of technology. Readers cherish their paperbacks even as they download to Kindles. When Davis boards the city bus to the library, he’s never without his stylus and Braille plate. He already has JAWS on his home PC, but the library has a newer version. And Davis is eager to test out the new features.
To view an article about James Davis and JAWS published in “American Libraries” magazine, click here.