Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Ask HN: How do I put together a computer for my blind mom?
339 points by probably_wrong on May 14, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 78 comments
As the title says, I want to design an interface that my blind mom can use. I tried JAWS, but as an old woman she finds it too complex. I fear the same will happen with a non-custom emacspeak.

I just need to patch together something that reads web pages in Spanish, books, and maybe e-mail. That's it. Has any of you done something similar?

I hope you see this, because 1st-hand-experience.

My brother is blind. He has been using JAWS for over a decade.

I love OSS, and I know many distros have screen readers.

Yet JAWS is just out there ahead.

If she finds it too complicated: try and simplify things. Remove unneeded icons and menus. Customize her shortcuts. Install TeamViewer (if she is remote).

Keep helping her man. The internet, for my brother, is a place where his limitations are minimized.

Yet to have the world open up in front of you, is all worth it. My brother (just as me), speak spanish. He uses JAWS still the same, although the bulk is in english.

Let me know if I can help you in any way.

PS: If anybody can point me in a direction to help OSS screen reader software, please do let me know. Would love to contribute back.

NVAccess.org manages the NVDA screenreader which is free and open source. It's what I rely on to use a computer.

It's also stealing massive market share from JAWS.

Debian has some decent accessibility resources:

https://wiki.debian.org/accessibility https://www.debian.org/devel/debian-accessibility/software

ORCA is probably the strongest FOSS competitor of JAWS:

https://wiki.debian.org/Orca https://help.gnome.org/users/orca/stable/

I don't know whether Debian would be the best choice for OP or not. In my experience, I wouldn't install any new OS for someone unless you are willing and available to help the person until they get the hang of it.

My parents have been using Linux (formerly Debian and now Mint) for over a decade after they got fed up with Windows. I still have to help them from time to time, but I think that would also be the case with Windows, except I would be trying to remove malware instead of showing them how to burn a DVD or what have you.

Malware has not been much of an issue since about the time Vista rolled out. The new model is pretty good and the free Microsoft Security Essentials fills in for 3rd party crapware antivirus packages.

That's not to say that downloading 3rd party applications for Windows doesn't scare me much more than sudo apt-get install...the OS's just invoke different levels of trust in me. Anyway, XP was the last truly vulnerable version of Windows and thankfully it's been laid to rest.

It's more of a PEBKAC scenario. I'm not saying modern Windows isn't secure per se, but they are far less likely to install something they don't want on Mint (perhaps I should have said crapware or bloatware instead), such as questionable toolbars and other "bundled" software.

As someone who has had to clean an infested Windows 7 machine, I disagree; there is no limit on what users can be convinced to install.

There is no anti-virus against human stupidity.

The Microsoft Security Essentials bit would be very true if they didn't end up installing other crapware AV's on top of it, which happens more often than not, at least on the Windows computers I get my hands on. And even using more than one AV they still manage to get their browsers hijacked, etc.

Unfortunately there isn't a good solution for this, especially on the desktop.

You may have a much better time with an iphone/ipad/ipod touch. The interface is much simpler than a desktop, and VoiceOver is much easier to use than JAWS.

Apps that can help (there isn't one catch all) Apple mail is pretty simple, and fully VO compatible Voice Dream Reader simple text to speech app that syncs with pocket, evernote, dropbox, and most importantly bookshare. a service for the blind with pretty much every book published on it.

Web pages are hard to navigate, but maybe some combination of pocket and voice dream reader will do the trick.

I'm going blind and this is how I perform the tasks you're talking about.

Unfortunately, if these solutions are beyond the means of your mom, there aren't many other options for the tasks you are talking about,

I'm working on an SDK that allows developers to add a conversational interface to mobile apps. This type of siri-like interface turns out to be much easier for seniors to learn than traditional assistive technology. You can check it out at conversantlabs.com

Feel free to message me if you want to talk more about helping your mom out.

To this I would add if a computer is preferred for whatever reason, sticking with VO on OS X is still nice and the whole Apple ecosystem thing actually works beautifully in this case. Far easier to use than JAWS etc. and much cheaper in the long run. My father is low vision and prefers the all Apple setup by a long shot.

Another cost effective option is NVDA on PC. It's free and open source.

http://applevis.com is a community for for blind and low-vision users of Apple devices.

>You may have a much better time with an iphone/ipad/ipod touch

The biggest problem with modern intelligent phones, specially apple ones, is that there is zero tactile feedback on the screen vs good old buttons or keyboard.

While this is true, it turns out the lack of buttons isn't as limiting as you might think. You may not have haptic feedback, but you still have the ability to explore the screen using your spacial/tactile senses. By touching the screen and dragging your finger around you can explore what is displayed on the screen. The phone will read aloud the label of what ever item your finger is touching.

For an much more in-depth and eloquent discussion of touch screens and accessibility, you should check out this paper, slide rule which is the research that the VoiceOver design is based on.


Thanks for the reference. Has there been research on radial menus for this use case? E.g. touch anywhere in the middle of the screen to define the center of the radial menu, then move in a circle to discover the radial menu options. This would reduce the surface area to be traversed. If we ever get haptic feedback on mobile devices, this could be used to signal transition between "pie slices" of the radial menu.


Have you used VoiceOver? Both iOS and OS X versions have a rotor menu that activates with a two finger touch and twist motion to give access to various sets of items.

I've enabled VoiceOver for testing but had not seen that gesture, thanks for the pointer. It is useful but slightly awkward as you need both fingers to retain contact with the screen while rotating, which is challenging for a 360 degree rotation :)

You don't have to do full rotation in one go. It's hard to explain, but you basically need to do this (assuming right hand): put your thumb and index finger on the screen, and then do a swipe left motion with your index finger, while having thumb in place. Then lift the index finger, move it back to starting position and repeat. With that gesture you can advance the rotor by one position at time.

I was surprised by this too, but iDevices are extremely popular with blind people.

This is one of the few places where I give iDevices a lot of credit. Apple knew that touchscreens have certain disadvantages in that regard, and put a lot of thought into features that overcome those disadvantages. The result is something that's in many ways more usable for a blind person than a full-sized computer.

Source: A family member volunteered to help blind students for a while.

I'm not sure why you're being down voted. I find the lack of tactile feedback annoying and I can only imagine how it must be for someone blind.

Don't take this the wrong way, but it's obvious from this comment that you've never spent any time working with a blind person on an interface. This idea that a blind person would need tactile feedback comes from a sighted person imagining what it would like to be blind, not the experience of actual blind people with buttons vs touchscreens.

No offense taken, I am in fact just as ignorant as I appear to be.

This is just not as big of a problem as you think it is. Most blind folks I know rave about their iPhones and generally don't feel limited by it like they might have with their BrailleNotes or mediocre screenreaders/a11y tools on android. Many iOS apps also have a fairly accessible default state, assuming devs didn't go overboard with custom everything up the wazoo with no care for accessibility.

I used to work with some blind individuals, and one thing that's hard to relate to is how much more attention they give to things that sighted individuals do not, such as sounds, spatial relationships, etc. I wouldn't think they'd have any problem, for example, opening a specific app on their iPhone solely by its position on the home screen.

Wouldn't you just use Siri for that? I have enough apps that it's mostly too hard remembering where all but the most commonly used live, so I just tell Siri to open the app. Works like a charm.

You can get a physical keyboard for an iPad if you want one. Then you get a touch screen and a keyboard.

At least on Android, you can plug in a keyboard and navigate that way in a lot of apps while using TalkBack.

I'm a totally blind programmer who uses Windows as my PC operating system and an iPhone for my smart phone. For basic email and internet browsing I'd have her try an iPhone or iPad mini. I've found an iPhone much easier to use then an iPad do to spacial layout being different on a larger screen. I started out with an iPhone though so if she starts with an iPad this may not be an issue. I'd stay away from an iPod touch if possible unless updated hardware comes out. I've found the iPhone 4s to be a bit sluggish but usable with voiceover. Since the iPod touch has 4s hardware I assume you would run into the same issues. If you know someone with an old iPhone or iPod touch though she could always try it and if she gets comfortable upgrade to newer hardware.

I'm a blind dev, and would love to help - contact @SaqibS on Twitter.

1. An iPod/iPad/iPhone with the built in VoiceOver screen reader is going to be much simpler than a PC, and thus easier to get started with. 2. If a PC is required, then try the free/open source www.nvda-project.org. It is very similar to JAWS. 3. A final alternative is a simplified interface for new blind computer users, like Guide (http://www.yourdolphin.com/productdetail.asp?id=30). I don't have much experience with that.

Scott Hanselman's podcast interview with Katherine Moss is pretty good and describes her combination of tools approach. It's about a year old, so pretty much current in regard to tech stack.


The Internet is not blind friendly. It sucks, and we need to do better, but for now, blind people are mostly locked out of the Internet.

OS X has some really nice screen reading/accessibility stuff builtin and you can have it do things like read books from the iBook's Store out loud. Mail.app has some support for voice control if you're willing to get it all setup before giving her the computer.

Actually the screen readers are pretty decent these days. If web creators follow good form and images are annotated blind people can do ok. Javascript heavy sites can be a killer but screen readers do a fairly good job at reacting to those as well but that can definitely be more iffy.

Source: I worked at a school for the blind and have completed accessibility projects for legacy web applications. Even those bloated beasts just needed a relative handful of changes and were mostly usable.

> The Internet is not blind friendly. It sucks, and we need to do better, but for now, blind people are mostly locked out of the Internet.

Really? This day and age? No one in my life is blind, so I just assumed at least some minimally level of accessibility.

I wonder how many blind and sight-impaired people there are in the general population?

In US: about 1% of the population is blind; about 1.3m Americans are "legally blind" - which is defined as " visual acuity with best correction in the better eye worse than or equal to 20/200 or a visual field extent of less than 20 degrees in diameter"


Work on "eyes-free" user interfaces can also be helpful to sighted users, e.g. for multitasking.

Actually, Safari works fine with most of the internet (not everything certainly, but an awful lot of it) with the built in OS X screen reading/accessibility.

I'm not so sure as to say it'd blind-FRIENDLY, but probably more so than much of the world. I have a couple of blind friends who have been using computers since the BBS days. Things have only improved by leaps and bounds in the past 20+ years.

How old? How long has she been blind? How does she feel about it? What does she want in life?

Your best approach should depend on the answers to those questions. Maybe, the best solution is to forgot email and web pages (for now, or maybe even completely (1)) and give her a good way to listen to spoken books.

Contact an expert, for example ONCE if you are Spanish.

(1) that may sound harsh and also sort-of is but it may be the best solution. For example, if she is mentally old and hasn't used computers much, it may be years for her to learn to use a computer. Years that she could have been listening to spoken books, relearning to go shopping, make tea or cook meals, etc.

I'm a sighted person who had a period of temporary blindness[1] and had a positive experience using the built-in software of my iPhone -- I quickly "got used" to having Stephen Hawking read my email to me while I was on a conference call, and would seriously recommend you take a look at it.

I also used emacsspeak for programming, and I don't think I would recommend it as easily.

[1]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9284567

If you have a Mac, you can create AppleScripts to automate most of the functions that the average computer user performs. You can put each of these AppleScripts in the "Speakable Items" folder, and the file name of the script will become the command that your mother says to activate the script.

If you're using VoiceOver, you can also use keybindings to activate an AppleScript, by creating a VoiceOver commander[0]. "Open Mail" is a built-in commander, activated by pressing option-m. (Default is right option key, but preference can be changed to left or both.)

[0] http://www.applevis.com/guides/mac-os-x/understanding-and-us...

I know that OS X comes with a lot of features out of the box.

Yes! It is surprising the amount of accessibility features in apple's products. The platforms are usually very simple to use and work very well when voice controlled.

I would like to suggest that you contact Jim Fruchterman at Benetech (http://benetech.org/) who has had years of experience with computers for the blind. His email is, I believe, jim(at)benetech.org.

About Benetech (from their website): Today, Benetech continues to be a different kind of tech company—a nonprofit—with a pure focus on developing technology for social good. More than two decades after our founding, we’ve grown to include multiple program areas and initiatives that provide technology to improve—even transform—the lives of people all across the world. You can read more about our work through our four main program areas: Human Rights, Global Literacy, Environment and Benetech Labs. - See more at: http://benetech.org/about-us/the-benetech-story/#sthash.qOG9...

Benetech is a not-for-profit and worthy of your support.

Yeah, Benetech is a great outfit. I had the privilege of doing the front end work for the Bookshare.org website when they revamped it in 2007. Was a fun project and we got tons of good feedback during development from a terrific community of users. Highly recommend Bookshare.

"Vinux is a Ubuntu derived distribution optimised for the needs of blind and partially sighted users."


I used to know someone who used an Ubuntu-derived distribution and seemed to get on fine with a screen reader and a set of headphones on his laptop. I think it was Vinux, but I'm not sure.

I'd recommend looking at a tablet, either Android or iOS. Navigation is simpler in general, which means navigating via the screen reader (TTS) is going to be easier. You also get access to Google Now / Siri, which is nice in this case because it gives you a natural language interface to some of the information on the web — especially since many websites don't play nicely with screen readers.

Another option you could look at, if you really want to go with a desktop computer, is a braille terminal (https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Refreshable_braille_display). I've seen some blind colleagues at work use them, but I don't know how the usability compares to a screen reader.

> Another option you could look at, if you really want to go with a desktop computer, is a braille terminal (https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Refreshable_braille_display). I've seen some blind colleagues at work use them, but I don't know how the usability compares to a screen reader.

My understanding, based on conversations with and writings by blind users of Debian, is that a braille terminal is helpful for the bandwidth and context it provides, and useful as a supplement to interact with many programs (especially as an engineer spending lots of time in terminals and editors), but not satisfactory as a complete substitute for a screenreader and accessible applications, even if you spent 100% of your time in a terminal.

Not android.

NVDA (http://www.nvaccess.org) is a free, open source alternative to JAWS. AFAIK, Firefox is the browser with the best support for Accessibility.

Check out Dolphin guide. The software is pretty basic, but it is designed to allow non-computer savvy, low vision, and blind users interact with their computer in an easy to use way. Guide will let you browse the web, listen to music, read documents, check email, and various other tasks. IT comes with English, Spanish, and French speech synthesizers. Below is a link to the trial, and more information.


Have you considered a custom tool for your mom to control a screen reader in a way that’s most practical for her? A while ago I spent time with a gentleman who was blind and had ALS. I wanted him to be able to use his screen reader to browse the web even when he had almost no motor ability in his arms. So I built a tool that allows someone to browse the web through just a few key presses on the number pad. (The tool mostly simulates key input which the browser and screen reader are reacting to.) There’s a couple of videos of the tool at http://herbi.org/WebKeys/WebKeys.htm. Some technical details are at http://herbi.org/WebKeys/WebKeysTechnicalDetails.htm, and the source for the tool is at http://herbi.org/WebKeys/WebKeysVSProject.htm.

If you think a tool like this might have potential to be of use to your mom, let me know and I can try to update it in whatever way you think would help. (I can only help with tools running on Windows, as that’s all I know how to build.) Feel free to contact me at Barker@Herbi.org.

(I work in the Accessibility team at Microsoft, but my spare-time Herbi.org projects aren’t related to Microsoft. If you have any questions about the features in Windows for people who are blind or have low vision, let me know.)

I am fully sighted, and occasionally use VoiceOver for accessibility testing. I found it a little difficult to use while learning because it wasn't how I was used to navigating, but after a few hours I was fine. When you first enable VoiceOver, you're given the option to take a VoiceOver tutorial which goes through basic keyboard commands and web navigation. After the tutorial, I found most of the keybindings I needed by searching the text on this page: http://lab.dotjay.co.uk/notes/voiceover-commands/

I was curious, so I had "Alex" read me some news from http://www.20minutos.es (first Spanish-language newspaper I found), and he did not have a Spanish accent. Perhaps there's a better voice in a Spanish localization of OS X.

I recommend using VoiceOver with QuickNav on because that makes navigation much easier. VoiceOver also allows you to set keybindings for launching AppleScripts, which you might be able to leverage to remove some of the complexity from learning/using VoiceOver: http://www.applevis.com/guides/mac-os-x/understanding-and-us...

Apple has a handy keybinding reference, which is VoiceOver accessible: http://help.apple.com/voiceover/vo/en/VOKeysColor_1.html

Applevis is a great community, and so far I've found an answer to all of my other questions by searching their forums: http://www.applevis.com

Not sure if this'll help, but on the Daredevil Netflix series, Matt Murdock (who is blind) was using a refreshable braille display[1].

Could this be useful?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refreshable_braille_display

Most of the blind and partially sighted users I've known have used text-to-speech. I suspect the Braille display was mainly in there because it looks cool, not because it's functional. :)

Here are some options you might want to consider:

- Windows 8.1 with Internet Explorer 10 with built-in "use the computer without a display" options turned on

- A Chromebook with Chromevox (you can go through the Chromevox tutorial on any computer with Chrome, but the keybindings are slightly different for each OS)

- An iPad with VoiceOver

Perhaps create an app or website that reads text. You paste in the text you want it to read to her---web pages, books, e-mail, whatever. Each item you "push" to her gets queued up so she can listen when it's convenient.

The controls she would need would be very simple. At a minimum, start reading and stop reading. Maybe something to skip to the next item if she gets bored with whatever she's on.

My mother is disabled, so I've thought a lot about these kinds of issues.

I would start with Nuance. They're into speech.

I'm visually impaired and tried everything mentioned in this thread. VoiceOver on iPad or Marcos is the most user friendly comprehensive and stable solution

The best stuff I've seen is ChromeOS talk back -- it's actually the only one I could roughly use with my eyes closed.

That being said, some websites don't play well...

For app launching on mac I recommend Keyboard Maestro, I use it at work a lot. Over time you can customize it for her and string events together with audio cues.

Does she still have some vision? if so, more of a combination of speech and magnification would be best. For example, Windows full-screen magnifier and either TTS or free NVDA screenreader set to speak only under mouse and with verbosity turned down. iPad has all of this (no matter what the vision). lot of my senior clients with low vis use one. Chris Johnson, Assistive Tech expressABLE

I recently started a project because I am getting bored of reading everything. Friend said the same project could help blind people. I am sorry but its only a POC yet, I got caught up in regular work. I can probably invest some time if its going to get used. https://github.com/Omie/shruti

Earlier this year at FOSDEM there was a blind guy at Debian stand presenting his solution:


It's mainly based on Debian along with a Braille display if I recall well. I suggest anyone interested to check his website.

I find this challenge very exciting, the rewards to humanity seem potentially great considering that haptic and other ways of sensory stimulation of the user of the technology...can program a lot of subconscious influence on the kind and also at the very least become quicker and easier to use (interfaces) than speech, text, visual, etc.

Here is one volunteer organization's technology list:


I'd recommend contacting this organization and others so they can give additional practical advice based on their experience helping others.

How do the tools available for Mac differ to those available for Windows?

I personally have fallen victim to the hands of malware on my windows PC (doing nothing unusual I feel) which rendered it very frustrating to use, but my Mac has not had any significant issues. I imagine that as someone vision impaired these issues would be catastrophic.

Have you thought about buying a Braille display? One of my university colleagues uses it along with audio output.

One of my neighbours is blind and he mentioned that Humanware's products were good. Do you know about the Braillenote / VoiceNote? Starting price is ~$2k though and I don't know if you can get it subsidized and if you can, to what proportion... Hope you find that information useful.

I might also point you in the direction of Artur Ortega, @designedbyblind on twitter. He's very knowledgeable about assistive technologies, and is also multilingual a few times over so may have useful insight about the language-specific aspects of your situation.

There was this discussion on HN about the work of a guy who built an e-ook reader for his nearly bling uncle.


There is at least one blind HN user, he has a contact e-mail in his profile:


With iMacros (for Chrome or Firefox) you can automate for example the login to websites. Maybe that can be part of your setup. Our use AutoHotkey (AHK) to automate Windows as a whole.

The built in functionality of Macs nowadays is surprisingly great. I have a blind student who just uses a Mac with the default assistance options turned on with great success.

What about TalkingArch(https://talkingarch.tk/)?

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact