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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Master Your PC and Screen Reader!

by Deborah Armstrong

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 angst 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 interruption and distraction. Some enjoy asking questions and some are shyer, prefering 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 explain your learning style.

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 dilligence 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 every time.

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? Gather your learning materials and make a plan that is specific about what, when and how you will accomplish the goal.

Take notes. Too many people object to note-taking claiming they have a good memory. But why give yourself an additional impairment? You need that memory for everything that does not get written down. 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. Reading over your notes later, or simply listening back to recordings you made will truly help you master skills.

If you are working with a teacher or friend, ask them to help you master one small skill at a time, for example, opening a file on your flash drive. Once you've practiced that skill, then summarize it in your notes. Don't try to note something while you are still in the process of learning it because you might log the steps inaccurately. But as soon as you master it, stop and note what you've learned.

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.

Create cheat sheets. Using note cards, a Braille or large-print user 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.

You can also use a digital or tape recorder to tape your little quizzes, and then check your answers when you get home. If you feel you memorized something new, leave yourself a voicemail 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? If you are the waiting type, expand your horizons with a sense of adventure. Once you learn the restroom is next to the fire door, or on the opposite side of the hall from the cashier, you'll 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 all 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. If you are a bit more advanced, use your screen reader: click on all the unlabeled graphics, note what happens, and give those graphics a label.

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 school or 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.

Think Out of the Box. Ask a different 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. 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. Dont' 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 commited 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.

Don't get too 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 tech support or a friend for help. 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 alergies or coming down with a cold. You can eliminate alergies if it isn't 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 can't obviously 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.

My mom, who is fully sighted, 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. My mom could not proceed in her learning because she didn't know that the word browser was simply a term for any software used to browse the web.

One of my friends 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 set of instructions, the problem went away. Don't be afraid to ask for help and keep asking if your first helper doesn't know the answer.

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, consider that you are missing the obvious. Take a break and when you come back, try to read the instructions looking for a different meaning.

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".

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. I worked for a decade in technical support and know this truth from experience. Describing 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 trying to accomplish today. Sure your boss wants you to be a wiz at the new order entery 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, allow yourself 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 becoming flexible will keep your interest and attention high.

Deborah Armstrong is an alternate media specialist at De Anza Community College in Cupertino California. Though she is blind, she works primarily with sighted students who have learning disabilities. "I decided to write this article to help other blind people, using skills I've learned from assisting those with a variety of learning differences."

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