by Josh Kennedy

When most people think of screen readers, the first thing that may come to mind is JAWS, Window-Eyes, or Hal. While these are good screen access products, they may not be suitable for everyone. In this article, I will review four lesser-known free or low-cost products.

JAWS, Window-Eyes and Hal, while very powerful and extremely configurable, are also very pricy, ranging in price from $800 to over $1,000. They are often purchased through government agencies for their blind clients, and they are also purchased in bulk for use in organizations, workplaces, schools, and some libraries. But what if you don't have the money to buy a screen reader such as JAWS? What if you're unemployed and you can't justify the need for one of those three screen readers? You bought a computer because computers these days cost anywhere from $400 to $800 for a decent desktop or laptop computer. But, since you're blind, you still need that thousand-dollar screen reader plus the SMAs to keep it up-to-date, right? Not necessarily. This is where Thunder, NVDA, System Access, and the newly released beta System Access To Go can help you.


Thunder is a free screen reader created by the screenreader.net company. It works with Windows XP Home, XP Pro, and Vista. It has a talking installer which, when launched, installs Thunder with little or no intervention by the user. Thunder works with popular applications such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook, calculator, the Windows XP desktop, basic PowerPoint support, media player, and possibly more. Thunder lets you control the physical mouse, simulating it with keys on the number pad. The only disadvantage to the mouse simulation is there is no button for right- clicking, but there is one for left-clicking. You can also make Thunder play musical tones to help you get oriented to the screen. Thunder can read tables in Word, the titles of windows, the status lines of some applications and more. You can also set marks, kind of like virtual windows, if you want to read certain areas of the screen frequently. Thunder is updated once every three to four months. You can write scripts for Thunder to work better with applications if you can obtain the Visual Basic development environment and learn VB-Script. Scripts can also be written in Notepad.

Some people have complained that Thunder crashes often on their machines and is not very stable. I would give Thunder a 3 out of 5 rating. Thunder works reasonably well with the applications it has been scripted for, but don't count on making major changes to Thunder because the source code is not available. Obtaining the Visual Basic integrated development environment may be difficult for some people to do.

There is also a Thunder Pro version which allows you to have a little more functionality such as telling the font and formatting styles in Word. You can also buy more natural-sounding voices for Thunder for $49 each from www.screenreader.net and www.screenreader.co.uk. You may also purchase a special version of Thunder pre-installed onto a USB thumb drive for about $300.

Nonvisual Desktop Access

Nonvisual Desktop Access (NVDA) was created by Michael Curran in December of 2006. He created his own screen reader because he was tired of paying for upgrades to his traditional screen reader. NVDA is both free and open-source. It is written in Python, a programming language recommended for beginners or for non-programmers to start out with. NVDA is registered under the new general public license, which states that the program and its source code may be obtained and modified, but that all changes to the source code must be made known to the developers.

As of version 0.5, NVDA comes with a talking installer. You can choose to use the talking installer, which loads a temporary copy of NVDA, allowing you to install NVDA without any sighted assistance. You may also opt to install using an existing screen reader you have running by pressing cancel or escape and installing without speech. There is also an NVDA portable version which you can unzip to a USB flash drive or CD and take with you. NVDA will run on any Windows 2000, XP, or Vista computer. It does not yet have mouse simulation; the developers are waiting until they learn how to implement video hooks before they add that feature.

NVDA does, however, have a different method of object navigation. You can use the number pad and the insert modifier along with keys on the number pad to navigate windows by the order in which they appear logically in a program. For example, the desktop is the "parent" window and the topmost window in the entire operating system, while the other windows, such as those in your applications, are considered "child" windows. NVDA allows you to navigate through these windows, which may even include graphics, and activate them with a single command. You can also route the mouse to these objects, or you can route the navigator objects to the mouse location if you want. NVDA does not yet give you a way to click the mouse, so the mouse has little use. If you'd like, you can download both the Python development environment, Python help, and NVDA source code and implement these features or any other features you desire.

NVDA works with applications such as Outlook Express, Internet Explorer and Firefox. It presents web sites in virtual buffers. Many of the navigation keystrokes you are familiar with using JAWS will also work in NVDA. NVDA also works with Microsoft Word, Excel, the calculator, and other applications. At press time, the developer is re-writing some of the code to make it work better in some edit fields which currently do not speak when you arrow around.

NVDA also comes with a free and open-source text-to-speech engine which sounds a lot like Hal's Orpheus. This synthesizer is called eSpeak. You can obtain a SAPI5 version of it by going to http://espeak.sourceforge.net. There, you can download a version of eSpeak which is SAPI5 compatible and will work with your other screen readers. If you don't already have eSpeak installed before installing NVDA, don't worry. ESpeak has been made into a .dll file; this is a small application tied directly into NVDA. The .dll version of eSpeak is not SAPI5-compatible. For the latest features, it is recommended that you also install the SAPI5 version of eSpeak on your system. The two may coexist without interfering with each other.

In addition to the eSpeak speech synthesizer being able to speak many languages, NVDA itself has been translated into over 10 languages. You can switch between the language interfaces in the NVDA preferences by bringing up the NVDA window with insert+n. In addition, it is easy to change the NVDA modifier to whatever you like. It's as easy as editing a text file. And if you know Python, you can change NVDA to suit your needs and even make it work with that stubborn inaccessible program your employer may want you to use. NVDA does not currently support braille displays, but that is being worked on.

A final note on NVDA. If you wish to donate to the project, you may do so by going to www.nvaccess.org. NVDA also has an e-mail list. Information on this can be found on the community link of the main web site, www.nvda-project.org.

System Access

System Access is a low-cost screen access solution created by Serotek Corporation. At a cost of $129 per year, you can have System Access on up to two computers. System Access has both desktop and laptop layouts built into it by utilizing more than one modifier key. Since System Access is not free and not open-source, it cannot be modified by the user. Serotek did say, however, that they will be coming out with braille support and scripting capability later this year.

System Access lets you work with popular applications such as Outlook, Outlook Express, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Internet Explorer. It does not work with Firefox. System Access renders web sites and e-mail messages in virtual buffers in much the same way that JAWS, Window-Eyes, and NVDA do. System Access also has a virtual mouse mode with full mouse click capabilities. You may label graphics and create program packs to upload to the System Access users community.

In addition, System Access lets you connect to the Freedom Box network if you have a Freedom Box account. System Access's default synthesizer is DECTalk, but it will also work with any SAPI4- or SAPI5-compatible synthesizer you have on your computer. Both System Access and System Access To Go have a remote mode which will allow you to take control of another person's computer to provide technical support. This works best when the other person is also running System Access and is logged in. But you can remotely control computers that are not running System Access using the remote control feature built into both System Access and System Access To Go. System Access can also be put onto a USB flash drive. It works on any Windows 2000, XP, or Vista computer.

System Access To Go

Imagine for a moment that you went to a friend's house, or you went to the library, and you need to use their computer. You forgot your USB flash drive with your screen reader on it, and you want to look something up. Or what if you just can't get to the computer's USB ports? Well, there is a solution: System Access To Go. By going to www.satogo.com, you will be guided by DECTalk into using System Access remotely. This means that, once loaded, System Access will run from the web site and you can use the public computer or your friend's computer. System Access To Go has all of the features of System Access. But nothing is installed to the hard drive of the computer that System Access To Go is run on. So when you shut it down, there is no trace of the program left behind. With permission from the library, you can use any computer in the library.

System Access To Go may have trouble running on computers with high security firewalls. You may need to ask your network administrator in some cases for permission to run System Access To Go.

If JAWS, Window-Eyes, or Hal isn't for you, you can consider one of these four alternatives.

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