In February, Microsoft unveiled its new “Creator’s Build” for the new upcoming Windows 10 update. Currently, it is in beta and is still being tested, but that won’t stop anyone from getting excited about the new stuff coming out. So what can be so exciting about yet another update to Windows? Believe it or not, the big reveal is that they will finally be adding native braille support. While this seems inconsequential, it is in fact the first time braille users will be able to access the capabilities of a windows OS without needing third party software.
Today the go-to text-speech software is still JAWS (Job Access With Speech), the first incarnation being created for Windows in 1995. JAWS is currently used as the primary screen reader by 38.9% of blind and visually impaired individuals, which is down from 75% in 2009. The reason for the reduced popularity is primarily the increase of availability of other types of screen readers, such as another popular one called NVDA, which is an open source text-to-speech program that is braille compatible.
So why the switch to other screen readers? Primarily because of the cost associated with traditional screen readers. NVDA has become the “free and usable” version of JAWS, which costs $1,100 for the professional version and $900 for the home edition. In addition to this upfront cost, upkeep for the Software Maintenance Agreement is $260. All of which starts to add up when you consider the cost of other hardware such as refreshable braille displays, and embossers (braille printers) which are each over $2500. That is just to get someone out of the starting gate.
None of these programs are made by Microsoft directly. Instead companies like Freedom Scientific (the creators of JAWS and a magnification program MAGic) work with Microsoft in order to ensure products are compatible with the latest updates. Unfortunately, because it is not native to Microsoft there are always unusual glitches that occur, and since it isn’t a Microsoft product updating it to be more compatible adds an extra step. Something that would help, and give more streamlined access to screen reader users, would be a native, functioning screen reader. With Windows 10 that’s exactly what Microsoft gave us.
While Narrator, the Windows native text-to-speech program, has been around since Windows 2000 it was not deemed ‘passable’ until the Windows 8 incarnation. Even then, though, it certainly did not have the power of the longstanding programs. With the “Creator’s Build” Windows 10 upgrade users saw a huge leap in functionality, primarily attributed to Microsoft’s recent push for greater accessibility option across all of their devices. Now Narrator could work in 13 languages, read at 800 wpm, and increased accessibility within individual windows apps.
Braille users were left out of this giant leap forward. Despite the excellent care to create a usable audio experience, the much needed access to braille on a computer without the need for extra software was still not available yet. This is a pattern that has been ongoing. Braille in recent years has taken a backseat to auditory avenues of accessing information, primarily due to the fact that only about 10% of blind children today are taught braille. But braille remains a strong reading mode for individuals who are deaf-blind, as well as the 10% of adults who are braille readers. So focusing on audio made sense for the clientele, but it leaves those people who do use it out.
Until February, with the announcement that braille support is in beta with Narrator. While detailed information on how to use braille is not available yet, we do know that for now users will need to download braille support. After which, they will be able to go into the Ease of Access menu to enable braille, and to add braille displays. It appears that for now only USB and serial connections for braille displays are supported for now, so no Bluetooth access as of yet. Hopefully this will be resolved shortly, as connecting a display via a wire can be cumbersome in classrooms and other environments. There is also nothing quite like scaring your friends than by controlling your computer through the braille display from another room and your computer suddenly coming to life and asking, “Want to play a game?”, neat trick for Halloween.
There are other accessibility options in the works for “Creator’s Build”, monoaudio will be accessible from the Ease of Access center. Most of us will have to anxiously await the arrival of the new update, though there is no guarantee all the kinks will be worked out to come out for the next update. What we do know, is that very soon, every braille user who is a braille-reader will be able to access their windows OS machine. Something everyone has been waiting for since Windows came on scene.
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