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… 


— End



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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

4 thoughts on “RTFM!”

  1. Chris,

    You programmed JAWS for many years, so, of course, you understand best how it works. As an advanced user, most of my experience is also with JAWS, so I am in a similar boat. All the same, a brand new user would most certainly have to spend a considerable amount of time with the JAWS training materials, as well as probably take a course or two on basic Windows concepts, in order to be really competent with their computer, operating system, screen reader and various applications. So, to a certain extent, I must agree with the RTFM concept, like it or not. Nothing is simply “intuitive” without explanation, especially for technology newbies.

    I will say that JAWS continues to hold the lead on context-sensitive help and the overall quality of the training materials provided, but JAWS is providing reduced reliability these days and an ever decreasing level of access to the operating system and applications, so, alas, it is slowly losing its lead in many of the areas that count for blind people who must get a job done.

  2. Howdy Comrades!
    BC�s rambling post requires a response immediately, although I must interrupt my birthday celebration in order to write this. I also hate to read manuals and system documentation. I thought I was just being stupid, but I just can�t internalize instructions written in a geeky manual. I have to figure things out with the help of a teacher who allows me to blunder and succeed at my own pace. I hate to use the various keyboard commands that I used to skip using good old Vista, the mouse-based text enlarger that is so obsolete, most people do not understand what I am talking about when I recall it with so much fondness. I feel like Tricky Dick�s secretary, Rosemary Woods, demonstrating how the 18 minute gap appeared in a crucial Watergate tape when I use some of the keyboard commands. At this point, I don�t suffer from Repetitive Motion Syndrome, but my right hand trembles from a thyroid and medication situation. So when will I get the Star Trek computer that I can just order aloud to do whatever I wish?
    Chairman Mal
    Power to the Peeps!

  3. Whenthe JAWS Sound Scheme Manager was first introduced I thought that this was mere gimirckry and something I would never use myself. However, having bitten the bullet and set up a scheme, I wouldn’t be without it.


  4. What I think is very positive to see these days is the more vocal majority speaking up for themselves about having an affordable choice in Screen Readers. But at the saem time they compare every other alternative to what they all claim is a product in decline. How can you have evolution in computing, which we all know by definition is a platform that is not static, if any or all changes to the base form are constantly being held up to an unfair litmus test or default standard that only enjoys it’s success because of it’s massive sales? It does sound a lot like those out there who only came to Linux after it looked a whole lot like Windows.

    My point is that there has to be some laditude in how a program and it’s U.I. goes about it’s business. Saying that JAWS has problems and that this other program has even more problems because it does not behave, act or respond like JAWS is a wierd double standard that we should all strive to stay away from in these changing times.

    What good is it to have four, five or six new programs all doing their own thing if they are held to the same mirror as another product who was almost the last of the Screen Readers on the market to become Vista Ready? Furthermore why is everyone so quick to elevate this same product to such a high level when it holds out nothing but paid upgrades and more costly third party scripting add ons to do core parts of the Vista and Office programs? No offense intended to Brian or T&T but Freedom Scientific should just license your work instead of having me pay for their gaps and holes in product support.

    JAWS is a wonderful program. It has employed many and it has connected countless numbers of Blind people to computers all around the world. For that I am grateful to Eric, the programmers and people like you BC who have put in long hours to make that all possible. But nothing lasts forever and eventually someone out there builds a better mouse trap. The real key to an evolving and innovative product is how you respond to changes in the marketplace. And that’s where the problem really lies with where JAWS is currently. The program is too big, too resource intensive, it breaks Windows in many ways that others in the business are showing are completly avoidable and it’s development costs end up creating a side market which makes the barrier to entry even higher for some if not most people. And placing your customers in a position where they have no choice but to “buy one buy them all” for their * total access solutions* is just plain wrong if not cost prohibitive when all of your SMAS trigger at or near the same time.

    And even with all those shortcomings the train will keep on rolling because the product can sell on the brand name alone to those who don’t use it daily but are charged with the power to purchase a Screen Reader for people like you or me.

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