While talking with Mike Calvo on the telephone the other day, I asked a question about how something worked in System Access. “RTFM,” he replied suggesting that I should read the documentation. Yesterday, Steve posted a set of instructions telling me how to make a global keystroke change in Window-Eyes but, before he wrote out the very helpful instructions, he stated with some surprise that I had obviously not yet read the manual.
I hate reading software documentation. I find that I can figure out by trial and error how to accomplish most tasks and, in the process, learn a handful of other things. I do very much like context sensitive help and quick reference cards. In my opinion, changing a global keystroke in a screen reader should not require a lot of effort and, even more so, should have a very intuitive interface.
In JAWS, a user only needs to open the keyboard manager which, as it opens reminds the user that they can hit CTRL+SHIFT+D to switch to the default keymap and, from there, they can find the feature they want to assign a keystroke to or change the one that came pre-installed. System Access doesn’t offer a keymap editor at all and, simply taking a look at the instructions that Steve posted yesterday, one can get bowled over by the obfuscation of the process in Window-Eyes.
Since starting to use Vista, I have spent far more time with Window-Eyes and System Access than ever before. For years, people have told me how much simpler Window-Eyes users have it when compared to JAWS. I will agree that SA provides the simplest user interface of the three but the more I work with Window-Eyes, the more I find that performing some common tasks takes much more effort than with JAWS.
For years, the myth that one must learn a scripting language to use JAWS has been repeated over and over. This is plainly untrue. Most JAWS users, the overwhelming majority I would guess, never open the script manager and have no need to modify scripts.
JAWS also provides a really excellent set of help features and does so in a highly contextual manner. As I mentioned the other day, JAWS hot key help (INSERT+H by default), provides a list of available functions, the keystrokes assigned to them and the user can elect to simply hit ENTER on the feature they wish to execute and it happens from within the help system.
Of course, the importance of remapping keystrokes is of paramount importance to a person who uses a Kinesis or other obscure ergonomic keyboard. Thus, this particular issue has risen to the top of my stack this week and, therefore, becomes the subject of my blog articles as I tend to write about what I am thinking about.
I may also find the JAWS way of doing things simpler because, after so many years of using it on a daily basis, I may have “JAWS on the Brain,” a peculiar syndrome in which one hears Eric Damery’s voice whispering the correct JAWS keystroke to use directly into one’s head.
So, after following the instructions Steve sent yesterday to assign the keystrokes associated with moving the Window-Eyes Mouse cursor, I will start reading its documentation to better learn how to use the product.
As regards keymaps, though, both JAWS and, in my opinion, System Access provide solutions that, by using Caps Lock, Scroll Lock and other keys that I find useless as modifiers, they can offer layouts that require fewer uses of function keys and, as I don’t have a keyboard with a numeric key pad, I can use these alternative modifiers to both avoid conflicts with application keystrokes and to keep my hands on home row to avoid any unnecessary motion. I don’t want anyone to underestimate the importance of this issue as many blind people struggle with repetitive stress injuries (RSI) and anything their screen reader can do to cut down on furthering the damage should be done.
Years ago, around Cambridge and the MIT/GNU/Hacker community we called RSI emacsatosis because virtually all of us used emacs for most of our day and many of the older guys had moderate to severe RSI problems. Today, I call the malady “screen reader syndrome” because our sighted friends need to use far fewer keystrokes than we do.
Three years ago my RSI problems got so bad that I, on a daily basis, had to make a decision between two actions where both would lead to a poor outcome. The choice I had to make meant either taking a pain killer and struggling with the cognitive effects of the drug or skipping the pill and feeling the constant pain which also limited my ability to think. A few months later, my cognitive failures and near constant pain got so bad that I had to leave a job I once loved and collect from the long term disability insurance company that covered us at FS.
Today, I am extremely cautious about how I use keyboards because, even when I come close to my former work schedule, I can feel the pain approaching.
My RSI also motivates me to research new user interface paradigms for us blinks. Will Pearson is far ahead of me in this pursuit and, hopefully, someone will come up with a useful system that drastically cuts down on keystrokes while also improving the efficiency with which a blind user interacts with a computer.
Today’s article drifts from the titular subject of software documentation to RSI problems suffered by people who use keyboards a real lot, including me. I don’t mean to imply that Window-Eyes will cause more damage than any other screen reader. As far as I know, no one has studied the population of screen reader users to determine if one screen reader or another will cause more or less problems for its users.
All of the screen readers I’ve tried lately require a lot of keyboard use and none can be said to have a terribly efficient way of delivering information to its users. While System Access and JAWS provide additional modifier keys, the overall effect of using an entirely keyboard based interface is likely the same or very similar to the experience Window-Eyes users have.
The JAWS Speech and Sounds Manager was the last major interface improvement seen in screen readers. It is a bit annoying to set up but it does help provide more semantic information in less time to people who employ this feature.
Hell, I’m really rambling today…