Screen readers help visually impaired use computers

Thursday, March 31, 2016 - 6:01pm

The University of Michigan is helping implement screen readers, software programs that help visually impaired students or staff use computers and phones, aiming to create a more inclusive learning environment for those with disabilities.  

Screen reader specialist Brandon Werner works with blind students to help them use screen readers, and test websites and applications on campus to see if they work with screen readers. He also helps makers of the program point out problems within the software.

Werner focuses specifically on how to make math easier for blind students to learn. Werner explains that many math books are PDFs, so symbols such as multiplication signs and images are hard to translate to screen readers.

Werner does several test cases on University applications and websites on on-site computers to make sure screen readers are accessible on different operating systems and different browsers.

“One of the big things we stress is having the actual users do the testing,” Werner said. “It’s best to have someone low-vision do the test. A developer can do spot checks but before things are put into production, it’s best to have actual users do the testing.”

Taylor Arndt, a visually impaired student at at Hopkins High School who once worked with Werner, agreed that math was difficult to learn.

“I can’t read braille, at all, because of feeling issues. So that’s the most difficult aspect of screen readers,” said Arndt.

Mathematical journals use LaTeX, a typesetting language, which uses code in writing out its content. Werner says LaTeX is used to ensure the mathematical content stays the same regardless of any system updates.

Werner attempted to find out how blind individuals could get LaTeX set up on Windows and how they could set their screen readers to read punctuation, since most screen readers do not read punctuation on default. He wrote a guide on how to read LaTeX to use the language.

Accessibility is required by law and is a one of the initiatives of the ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion campaign on campus. Jane Berliss-Vincent, assistive technology manager at the University, said accessibility to learning tools for those with disabilities could be a bigger focus on campus.

“Accessible design frequently has positive implications for the increasingly wide range of tools that anyone might use,” she said. “An example is the use of the programming language Adobe Flash, which does not work well with screen readers. For reasons both technical and political, Apple has decided not to support use of Flash on its iOS devices. So it doesn't matter if you're blind, an iPhone user, or both: Pages that don't use Flash are going to be much friendlier to you.”

Werner said a large part of accessibility is making sure buttons and controls are correctly labeled. A lot of features on applications and websites, such as sliders, can be difficult to read on screen readers. He said he wants to push for more standardization among screen reader programs, since there are different gestures and methods for the same results on different devices and systems.

“It’s very hard for users to use different systems,” said Werner. “On every platform, iOS or Android, the commands are different. So it’s a big learning curve for users.”