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Tips for Mastering a complex screen reader Article

Mastering Your Screen Reader

Are you trying to move from the beginner level to becoming an intermediate or advanced user of your screen reading software? For many, the challenge is remembering how to study and memorizing a myriad of hotkeys. It’s even more difficult if the last time you studied you did not have a visual impairment. Here are some tricks for reducing the anxiety and tedium.

Different strokes for different folks. Get to know your learning style before trying to tackle the actual learning. Some people love to read manuals, and others just find them confusing. Some memorize better when sitting still in a quiet room while other people prefer to walk around and recite out loud. Some people like to study in a marathon long session, while others like to break lessons up in to small chunks. Some people enjoy chatting with others, and getting feedback about how their friends accomplish a task. Some people want to learn without a lot of interruption and distraction. Some enjoy asking questions and some are shyer, preferring to figure things out on their own.

If your computer teacher, your parents, or even your own internal bossy self wants you to learn one way, but you know you learn best using another method, stand up for yourself and be prepared to defend your learning style. Prepare also to be flexible enough to deviate from that style if there is a good reason to do so.

Set realistic goals. If you need to master Excel, PowerPoint and your screen reader’s more obscure commands, you won’t be able to do it all in one week. Make a plan, for example, focus this week on only learning excel and put the other to-do list items aside. For some people, it helps to write down a list of skills you want to master, and write down some dates you commit to working on their mastery. For others, simply setting a regular appointment is the key, for example, “Wednesday mornings I am going to work on Excel, every Wednesday morning until I run out of things to learn.”

Being realistic means knowing your limitations too. If you want to be able to shop online, but you are new to using your screen reader with the Internet, you won’t be shopping this afternoon. It is true that your sighted friends can shop online with a minimum of skill, but you will replace your failed vision with a knowledge of how to use a screen reader, and learning a screen reader takes diligence and time. If you were a touch typist before, chances are, you won’t have much difficulty with a keyboard, but if you never touched a typewriter, you will need to practice before landing effortlessly on the correct key .

Make a plan. How, actually will you learn the information? Will you spend time with the product’s training materials? Will you work in your school’s computer lab? Will you read some web pages about the product, or download some tutorials from the Internet? Will you get library books, for example using bookshare? Will you meet with a trainer regularly or only sometimes? Gather your learning resources and make a plan that is specific about what, when and how you will accomplish the goal.

Take notes. The act of writing something down helps solidify that information in your brain. If you aren’t able to effectively write, use a cassette or digital recorder, and speak out loud. People new to vision loss often resist note-taking because they can no longer do it with pencil and paper. They kid themselves by saying their memory is good enough that notes are not necessary. But why depend on memory when learning to take effective notes can make you more valuable to employers and even your family. And why deny yourself a tool that will save you so much time! Reading over your notes later, or simply listening back to recordings you made will truly help you master skills.

Notes should define terms, remind you how to do things, and also how not to do something. For example, you might note that it isn’t necessary to press enter after you type in information. You might note that the keystroke Alt-D takes you to the address bar, and make an additional note to remind you what in the heck an address bar is, anyway. A note may remind you how to select text and another note tells you what mistakes you commonly make when you think you selected some text but didn’t. Perhaps you have a bad habit of lifting up on the shift key. Note that down!

For some learners, taking notes isn’t a problem, but they focus so much on taking those notes, they have no leftover brain power to learn the task. There is also a problem when the note-taking documents the wrong way to accomplish something; you write down the wrong keystroke because you are trying to take notes while still learning. If you are that kind of person, focus first on performing the steps of the task. Then give yourself a time-out and summarize what you’ve learned.

If you’re working with a human trainer, ask the teacher to take a note-taking break, or ask the trainer to write down a summary of the steps while you spend time practicing them. Many trainers are happy to keep a log of what they are teaching and email you a summary with all the steps and keystrokes later.

Create cheat sheets. Using note cards, a Braille or large-print reader can write a keystroke on each flash card, so that memorizing can happen anywhere, such as a long commute. What’s really fun is to write up your own quizzes too, for example “Which keys do I press to move to a new frame on a web page?” You can alternate playing with quiz cards and then switch to reviewing the cards with the actual keystrokes you need to memorize. Get in the habit of grabbing your latest batch of flash cards before heading out the door; who says you need to be on the computer to learn how to use it!

You can also use a digital or tape recorder to tape your little quizzes, and then check your answers when you get home. Practice using your word processor by typing up your own exams, and getting a spouse or friend to test you. If you feel you memorized something new, leave yourself a voicemail quiz, and see if you remember the keystroke when you check your messages back home! Playing games with yourself prevents the learning from becoming a chore.

Use bits of free time. Are you waiting for a bus, a dentist appointment, or a meeting to start? This is a great time to learn just one more new keystroke! Don’t wait for a big block of free time, especially if your life is very busy. Research shows that even dogs learn best when training periods are short.

Dare to explore. Some sighted drivers get out the map, and plot a route in painstaking detail. Others drive around and note which buildings are on their route. Are you the sort of person who goes hunting for the restroom in an unfamiliar building before you need it or do you wait for someone to show you where it’s located? Or do you just let someone take you there without learning on your own where it is? If you know it is next to the fire door, or on the opposite side of the hall from the cashier, you’ll need less help and spend less time getting lost later. Whatever your style, learning how to explore a little can help you master a new environment, even if that environment is only digital. Check out all the programs menus. Working on a sample document or spreadsheet, try out different keystrokes to see what happens. Go through the online help, search for items and try reading some of the help screens. This is a fine way to learn program features, but it also is just a great help for your comfort zone.

If you have a magnification system, or sighted help, check out all the icons on a toolbar to see what they do. Ask co-workers to describe a program’s screens, while you tape record their descriptions. If other co-workers use a particular software package, ask what things they click on, because even if you will perform the task with keystrokes, knowing how it is done with the mouse can help you integrate more in the workplace. If you are familiar with the look of the programs you use, and you get stuck, a co-worker can tell you that the Information Window is open and you will know where you are. If you know how to accomplish a task with the mouse, you can walk a co-worker through the process in case your screen reader fails or can’t read everything.

Think Out of the Box. Ask a second person to explain a task to you. Read a different book on the subject. Try locating a choice on menus instead of just issuing a series of memorized keystrokes. For example, in some software pressing F7 starts the spell-checker, but if you forget how, you can often find the spell-checker by looking through the Tools menu. Go over notes that are several weeks old for clues. But don’t give up, just because the way you are trying to do something does not work.

Don’t get overwhelmed. The popular screen reader JAWS has hundreds of keystrokes. But if you learn a new one each day in a year’s time you will know how to accomplish far more using JAWS than many average users. The best way to stay committed to learning something new is to not overdo it and burn yourself out. Even practicing something new for just twenty minutes a day will get you to mastery, eventually.

Learn to cope when you’re stuck. We all get confused. You try to open a file, and you cannot find it. You think you are following directions exactly, but the screen reader keeps repeating something irrelevant. When you get stuck, take notes on what’s going wrong. This will help later if you ask a trainer or friend for assistance. It helps you too, because you start to learn the problem’s symptoms.

For example, if you are sneezing continuously, you are showing symptoms of allergies or coming down with a cold. You can probably eliminate a cold if it is pollen season. Computer problems are similar. Knowing the symptoms will help you diagnose and eliminate issues later. If for example, your computer keeps reading the time out loud, that is a symptom that you accidentally turned on some setting you probably don’t need. After you are shown how to disable that annoyance, you’ll know what to do next time it happens.

Master the lingo. Another reason people get stuck is that what they read makes no sense. If the tutorial keeps jabbering about being in MSA mode, and you don’t know what that means, here’s a clue that you need to research the meaning of some terminology. You should not waste time reading information that makes no sense, or working with tutorials that aren’t clear. If you are told to “click on options” to “adjust your choice” and you have no idea where options are and how choices are adjusted, these instructions will not help. If you are told to use your virtual cursor and you don’t know what a virtual cursor is, you obviously cannot learn how to use it.

Keep a list of terms you don’t know when you run across them, so you can get them defined as soon as possible. If it’s a human trainer slinging jargon, make the person stop and define the terms. If it is jargon in manuals or tutorials, you can keep your list handy the next time you meet with a real trainer, then go back and reread the tutorials with your new understanding.

One sighted senior citizen was stuck while reading the instructions to click on her browser. She searched the entire computer looking for an elusive browser to click on. She found Internet Explorer, and Firefox. She found web mail and many web pages she’d saved on her hard disk. This lady could not proceed in her learning because she didn’t know that browser was simply a term for any software used to browse the web. Don’t be like this lady. Remember some computer terms are synonymous.

Another student was stuck because the instructions told him to press Alt-I for the insert menu, but he never got an insert menu. It turned out he was reading instructions for an earlier version of Microsoft Word. As soon as he got the right version of Word installed on his computer, the problem went away. Another user with the same problem simply got the correct version of Word installed, the version that matched his tutorial.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help and keep asking if your first helper doesn’t know the answer. One student found that his computer was opening windows randomly and taking him to unwanted places in his documents. His sighted brother thought the computer was broken. But a blind trainer realized he was accidentally hitting the touchpad with his thumbs. When the touchpad was disabled, the problem was solved.

Another lady read the instruction “press Any Key when ready”. Again, she vainly searched her keyboard for the Any key. If you are stuck because you can’t locate that Any Key, take a break and when you come back, try to read the instructions looking for a different meaning.

Another tip is to record what your screen reader actually says along with a commentary about what you are doing. “I’m selecting Font, but see how it’s reading the word Style”. Playing this recording for a friend or trainer can help pinpoint where you are going wrong.

And if you are really stuck, give up on that one task and try something else. Perhaps your computer is configured wrong, or the instructions are misleading. Be specific in your notes about the problem. Instead of “it doesn’t work” you’ll be able to tell your helper the exact details, “when I press Alt-F for File, I don’t get a file menu in this particular program.” “When I select this download link, I don’t think anything actually gets downloaded”. “When I pull up this document, the screen reader keeps saying Start menu, over and over again”.

The most important thing to remember about getting stuck is the more clearly you can describe the problem, the more likely you will be able to get it solved. The author of this article worked for a decade in technical support and knows this truth from experience. Documenting a problem using specific, unambiguous language, is the best guarantee to getting it resolved.

Stop worrying. Many people fear technology because it will show how inept they really are. Computers make some people feel stupid. But the stupid people are those who give up before trying. Instead of focusing on becoming an expert, think just about the one little thing you are working to accomplish today. Sure your boss wants you to be a whiz at the new order entry system, and maybe you are afraid of getting laid off if you can’t become proficient. But worrying isn’t going to make you an expert either. Today, your task is to get quicker at navigating in a spreadsheet, so focus on the keystrokes you need to know and stop agonizing over the big picture!

Last of all, be flexible. If you prefer to ask questions and you aren’t getting answers that help, spend a little more solitary time with tutorials or manuals. If you would rather work alone, but keep getting stuck and giving up, then get on the phone with teachers or friends who can help. Or join many of the Internet communities of friendly access technology users. If you usually prefer materials in Braille, but get only audio, allot extra time to use the audio tutorial. If you cannot afford the expensive tutorial, and you are struggling with the free ones, maybe you just need to learn the meaning of some jargon, so don’t forget that google is your friend.

This article started by telling you to know yourself and your learning style, but don’t get stuck in a rut either. The best way to learn new things is to stay engaged, and experimenting with a variety of strattegies will keep your interest and attention high.

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