21 May 2012

Writing Blind: How Blind People Manage to Write

In Robert Brewer’s April monthly challenge on his regular My Name Is Not Bob blog, (see link below), he sets a task for writers all around the globe, to increase their blog traffic by pitching an idea as a guest blogger. Thinking what the heck, I’ll go straight to the source – I quickly threw an idea or two across Cyberspace to land in his inbox.

Within a day, he had replied expressing an encouraging interest in the topic I had pitched, and defined the goals: a word count for the guest post, a short bio, a photo and a deadline. I was thrilled – it was that easy!

The following story is what I wrote for his readers and I’m grateful for his enthusiasm and inclusion on his blog. NMINB has great writing tips and links for those wanting to learn more about the craft of writing – I highly recommend his friendly and informative site!!

Writing Blind

Have you ever wondered how a writer with vision-impairment or total blindness is able to operate a computer without seeing the screen? How do they move around in Cyber-space without cursing the cursor? How do they craft their work writing blind?

With patience and persistence like every other writer – and with a keen ear filtering the incessant dialog of a know-it-all computer program called JAWS (Job Access With Speech).

Gone are the days when Braille was the only option available at their fingertips. Nowadays, it is hard to keep up with all the technical advancements and handy gadgets that help them to function independently in a visual world. Fortunately technology today is so advanced, people like myself, with little or no sight can link with others through the World-Wide-Web.

As a vision-impaired writer I compose stories, store documents to folders, read and send emails, create posts for blogs and surf the internet – all without being able to see the screen on my laptop.

Once upon a time, in the dark ages I used an electric typewriter and magnifying glass to read and write with – but in 2000,  my writing ability soared to new heights when I took part in a series of training sessions for blind computer users. This is when I was introduced to the ‘guy’ who likes to run the show, JAWS – a screen-reading program with a robotic synthesized voice.

He may lack a warm tone and natural human inflection but I will give him due credit for guiding me through the computer maze from start up to shut down. I don’t even have to use a mouse – or a rat, or even a cute koala – because the keys on my laptop have been assigned special functions. It is remembering them all that is the fun part!

Like every new skill, learning all the correct keystrokes and finger commands was overwhelming


The hardest thing was getting used to the speed of the  robotic mono-tone voice: left ear on my trainer’s instructions, right ear on JAWS, my brain scrambled somewhere between the two.

After a year or so, the process became easier and more logical – JAWS was my inseparable office buddy: zipping through computer tasks which in return boosted my confidence as an independent writer.

No matter how rapidly I scoot around my files today, JAWS is right there with me, not missing a beat. So how does it all work?

Basically, for every single key I tap on the keyboard JAWS announces its name and function out loud. You could say I push his buttons and he takes it like a trooper! He announces streams of information like,

“Menus…leaving menus. File…edit file…leaving file…not connected, wireless networks are available. Windows explorer, W. Enter – library documents …items…view…list box…Robert Brewer blog post …edit. Do you want to save your changes?”

“Are you SURE you want to quit JAWS?”

My favourite one is when I accidentally tap the key to shut down JAWS and in a surprised tone he will announce, “Are you SURE you want to quit JAWS?”

Then there are special combinations of keys that will get JAWS to read one word at a time or one line or just one paragraph: he can jump around inside a web page, flick between open windows or announce selected text. It is like having a verbose parrot perched continually on one’s laptop.

 JAWS will read lashings of codes and numbers not even present on the screen (so I have been told) and thinks it very helpful to read headings in my Inbox several times until I thump the Control key which shuts him up – but only briefly.  

Sometimes, JAWS darts around open files and I have to work out which one he has disappeared into by striking the Tab key to find him again. (Maybe this is revenge for my earlier request to quit JAWS?). He picks up most spelling errors and dares to offer suggestions for new words – thanks JAWS but that’s not the word I am looking for.

It is all very fine and wonderful – until I want to make friends on Facebook. Nope. For some reason, JAWS announces all sorts of details that make it impossible to know where he is and who’s wall we are looking at? What happened to my helpful, chatty friend? Oh well, I guess it’s good to know his limitations, he is ‘human’ after all.

And so, this is how I write blind with a computer – but there is just one last thing I would like to mention. As amazing as it is to be able to do all these things with JAWS, I still rely on my supportive family who take time to look over my work, attach photos to files and set default settings within documents. Because sometimes, you know, it is just easier than working with a chatterbox!

©  Maribel Steel 2012

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