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Memoirs of a blind Switcher Article

Memoirs of a Blind Switcher

by John Panarese

As blind users investigate or actually make the switch from Windows to the
Mac, there has been a lot of discussion about the aspects of this change on
the blind Mac users email lists. This is, in no way, an attempt at a
tutorial or any kind of technical document. Reading about the common
problems and difficulties and, of course, successes encountered by new Mac
users has prompted me to think about my own personal experiences involved in
learning VoiceOver and the Mac. Below are some of my reflections on this
subject, which I hope might help or assist, or, at the very least, give
encouragement to current or future switchers.

In 1996 or so, I reluctantly took the leap from DOS and command line
computer use to Windows. At that time, it happened to be Windows 95, and
after all the horror stories I had heard and warnings from other blind
people about trying to use a GUI, I was extremely uncomfortable and
apprehensive. Slimware Window-Bridge was my screen reader of choice, which I
literally learned at the same time as Windows 95 completely on my own
without training. I won’t try to convince anyone that it was an easy or
smooth transition, yet I persisted and slowly became more and more
comfortable with the whole experience to the point in which I was soon
giving technical support help to customers.

Well, Window-Bridge became JAWS for a while, which eventually became
Window-Eyes for my screen access use as the years passed and screen reader
technology progressed. Simultaneously, I made the jumps from Windows 95 to
Windows 98 to Windows ME to Windows 2000 and then Windows XP (I won’t touch
Windows Vista at this point at all). All along, I dealt with the unexpected
and frustrating crashes, the constant concerns for security, viruses and
spyware, and all of the other insane elements of using a Windows computer
that folks have seemingly just come to accept as the “norm”. I have
conducted my daily business tasks and my personal hobbies via a computer,
and, to be honest, I have to say that my proficiency in utilizing a computer
is probably more advanced and technical than most sighted folks by necessity
more than by choice. Frankly, it has simply come with the territory that I
had to become much more familiar with the nuts and bolts of the operating
system and applications and their interactions with the operating system,
and not a case of me trying to brag or boast.

So, in April of 2005, I heard that Apple had included VoiceOver, their
screen access solution, as a part of their latest version of OS X, called,
Tiger. I had read material about VoiceOver a few Mac user friends had sent
me, and being that I had family and friends on Macs for many years happily
computing without all of the problems and frustrations that I was
experiencing as a Windows user, it very much intrigued me. I liked the fact
that VoiceOver was a part of the operating system and not a bolt on, third
party product. Furthermore, the fact that Apple was doing the development
and support very much increased my enthusiasm and anticipation for trying it
out. Apple had been doing some fantastic things since the launch of the iMac
in 1999 and I had always heard that their hardware and OS was continually
well ahead of Windows PCs.

I can still remember trying out VoiceOver for the very first time on a
friend’s computer a few days after Tiger was released. I had also heard a
review on ACB radio done by Jerry Halatyn that had only increased my
excitement and desire to learn the Mac. I was so sick of all of the little
annoyances I faced as a Windows user and how so many people would say things
like, “well, it’s just Windows, and everyone has to deal with it”. Checking
out VoiceOver that initial time, I quickly realized that I wouldn’t have to
“deal with it” for much longer when it came to having to rely on Windows for
my computer use. It would just be a matter of getting my hands on a Mac and
actually learning how to use VoiceOver.

Within a few weeks after that, I took the plunge and purchased an iBook G4
laptop. There was a little trepidation in me, as in those early days, there
wasn’t much documentation around to help the new VoiceOver user.
Fortunately, through Jerry’s review, I also learned about the Mac
Visionaries website and email list, which proved to be valuable beyond words
as the weeks and months passed. So many questions and curiosities were
answered or solved via that list either by my own posts or reading posts
from other Mac users going through the same experience as I was.

Now turning the clock ahead over two years, I am currently doing just about
everything on my Mac. My iBook was replaced by a MacBook in March of 2007,
and I am looking forward to the release of the next version of the Mac OS,
OS 10.5 Leopard, which is coming in October. Added features to the OS will
also include improvements and advancements to VoiceOver, which, according to
information on the Apple website, includes Refreshable Braille display
support. Yes, as a happy Mac user, I can hardly believe it has been two
years, and just how many of the Mac myths I used to hear have proven to be
completely inaccurate. In fact, it very much reminds me of all of the
stories I had encountered about Windows 3.11 and Windows 95 at the time I
made the jump to that platform.

What I really wanted to touch on in this document is the HOW in regard to my
two plus years of VoiceOver use. How does one make the jump from Windows to
the Mac? How is VoiceOver like Window-Eyes or JAWS? How is VoiceOver
different from Window-Eyes or JAWS? How is Mac OS X different from Windows?
How is Mac OS X similar to Windows? How did I learn a completely different
operating system and screen access solution? I certainly cannot answer all
of these questions in detail, but I will attempt to give some insight into
what I discovered or experienced.

If I were to say that it was an easy transition that took no time to
accomplish and did not include any moments of frustration, I’d be flat out
lying. In truth, the road was not always smooth nor was my blood pressure
always low. There was surely a learning curve and a totally new way of doing
things. For one thing, becoming familiar with OS X itself was somewhat
different, as much as I can say that a familiarity with folder structures
and using applications was very helpful. Also, elements like menus, dialog
boxes and edit fields and lists also carried over, but the VoiceOver
approach to dealing with it all was often unique. Having to “interact” with
text, HTML areas or items was a bit odd and confusing to me, along with the
inclusion of the VoiceOver modifier keys, control and option, with the arrow
keys or letters to accomplish tasks like navigation. All in all, my
immediate reaction was that as much as I had known about computer use, I
would still have a bit of new learning to experience ahead of me.

Again, I am not making an attempt here to deal with every aspect of
VoiceOver and the Mac by any stretch. It is really like anything else that
is new to you. One simply has to use it and become familiar with both the
operating system and VoiceOver. There is currently plenty of material out
there to assist in learning both OS X and VoiceOver available on the Apple
website under the OS X accessibility link, and there are also currently
three active email lists for blind Mac users out there. Thus, compared to
when I first took the plunge, there are plenty of helpful resources
available to aid you in the transition to a better computing life.

It must be stressed again that all Mac computers running OS X Tiger or
Leopard come with VoiceOver built into it. One simply toggles VoiceOver on
or off by pressing the command key (the alt key on a Windows keyboard) and
F5. Once VoiceOver is started, one then can customize it by opening the
VoiceOver Utility with the standard VoiceOver modifyer keys, control and
option (option being the key to the left and right on a Windows keyboard)
and F8. Since there are several different voices to choose from, one can
change to the one most preferible, as well as alter the speed and pitch of
the voice. Verboscity options, navigation preferences and visual display
changes for partially sighted folks can all be accessed via the VoiceOver

Once the user has made all the changes they desire, they can then move on to
use their Mac. All of the VoiceOver commands remain consistent throughout
the OS and applications, and one will learn that there are VO commands that
will enable one quicker access to various parts of the system as they go
along. For example, the VO keys and the letter m will open a menu, while the
VO keys, shift and d will take one directly to the desktop and the VO keys
and d will open the dock. The arrow keys combined with the VO keys are
utilized for navigation, though I must also point out that one will find
that the tab key and arrow keys alone will work similarly to how they do in
Windows in a lot of instances.

I will tell you that one of the most important recommendations that I can
make to a new Mac user or one contemplating a switch is you MUST leave your
Windows screen reader experience completely behind you. This is truly the
biggest psychological hurdle one needs to achieve. Yes, in essence,
VoiceOver and the Windows screen readers are designed to give the blind user
access to the computer, but one simply cannot approach the Mac and VoiceOver
continuously expecting and believing that they are going to be able to apply
their Windows knowledge to the Mac. It will only result in greater
frustration and confusion. For example, navigating the web was initially one
of my greatest challenges and probably the most difficult few weeks of my
experience. This was because I expected it to work like Window-Eyes and
found myself going round and round with my inability to grasp that I was
thinking like a Windows user. Once I realized that I had to just learn how
VoiceOver works on the internet, made a few changes to the Safari web
browser’s preferences and got familiar with just how to view a website, it
suddenly enabled me to begin to do all my daily activities involving the
internet on my Mac. This includes accessing forums, making purchases online,
and viewing and searching for specific information.

The other critical piece of advice I can offer is that one has to cast aside
all of the negative things and misinformation that has become all too common
in the blindness community in regard to the Mac. For instance, an article in
the September 2005 issue of Access World is often referenced by those people
looking to cast the most negative light on the Mac. In reality, the article
was one of the most poorly researched and inaccurate reviews I have ever
encountered in my nearly fourteen years in the adaptive technology industry.
There have been similar efforts put forth since, as well as even resolutions
presented by blindness organizations directed at Apple. Overall, however,
there is little truth or fact to all of these items, and it simply amazes me
that Apple’s efforts to make their OS accessible to the blind is actually
condemned and belittled by some.

In regard to some of the misinformation I have read and heard about using a
Mac from a blind person’s perspective is that there are not many or even any
keyboard shortcuts compared to Windows. Beyond the keyboard access provided
for VoiceOver, there are, in fact, a number of keyboard commands that one
can take advantage of. For instance, the command key and letter o opens
applications or folders, while command w closes a window. In mail, command,
shift and d will
send a message you have composed, and command s will save a message as a
draft or save a document if it is employed in Text Edit. There are shortcut
commands to restart or turn off your system, as well as a variety of others
that can be utilized in applications. My point here is that there is no
truth at all to the idea that OS X does not have keyboard shortcuts in the
same ways as Windows provides.

When it comes to the three major uses most people desire from their
computer, email, internet browsing and word processing, again, let us
counter the myths that state that one cannot accomplish these tasks on a Mac
as a blind user. The Mac email program, Apple Mail, is completely accessible
with VoiceOver, and the application gives you the same functionality as
Outlook or any other Windows mail client. Similarly, Safari, the Mac web
Browser, works just as effectively as Internet Explorer or Firefox in
Windows with only a few small preference changes needed by the user. Lastly,
Text Edit is a solid, robust word processing program that will even allow
you to open Word documents and save in Microsoft RTF format. Thus, right off
the bat, aside from not paying extra money for a screen reader, the new Mac
user has access to the major features of their system just as they do with a
Windows screen reader in Windows.

Is accessibility perfect on the Mac? No, there are, as with Windows even
today, areas lacking full access on the Mac. If one wants to find areas of
weakness in regard to any product or item, they surely can do so. The Mac is
no different. Nevertheless, in my two years using VoiceOver, Apple has
continued to improve accessibility and, additionally, encourages third party
developers to take advantage of accessibility features available in the
native programming language for Mac OS X, Coco. One of the most notable
improvements and advances to accessibility I have witnessed came with iTunes
in the version 7.1 release last spring. Apple is fully aware of
accessibility issues, and from what can be read concerning what one can
expect in Leopard, VoiceOver and accessibility will be greatly enhanced.

It sounds a bit lame or simplistic, but, overall, if I could learn how to
use a Mac, anyone can accomplish it and master it as well. There are plenty
of resources on this website to help you, as well as pointers and
information that is not commonly presented in a lot of places. The Mac is,
indeed, a very viable option for computer access, and just like using
Windows, it is really a matter of sitting down and patiently giving it a
shot with an open mind. Believe me, just the absence of all of the crashes
and security issues alone truly makes the Mac worth switching to, regardless
of whether or not you are blind.

John Panarese is the founder of Technologies for the Visually Impaired,
(, a vendor of access technology for the blind and visually
impaired for more than a decade, as well as a contributor to

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