Technology can create a ripple effect of a phenomenal magnitude, often rendering man with access to realms unexplored. An assistive technology called NVDA, which makes on-screen content accessible for vision-impaired computer users by providing speech or Braille feedback for the same, has significantly improved tens of thousands of lives over the world. To shed light upon the extensive chain of audiences that take part in furthering this non visual access movement, the following would be the most befitting piece:
NVDA – The Gamechanger
By Bhavya Shah
Originally published in the Insight Braille magazine 2016 edition
Charles Dickens once popularly quoted – “Men are only so good as their technical developments allows them to be.” In the year of 1940, this may have been considered a hyperbole, but today, it is no more figurative, but realistically literal. The intensity of this truth magnifies when the context of application switches to the differently-abled, more specifically, the visually impaired.
Assistive technology empowers those with vision loss to bridge the gap of their visual disability and compete productively at par with their sighted peers. It has opened doors to acquire information to entertainment, education to employment, and everything in between. Teaching learning aids, hardware recording devices, independent mobility tools, computer access solutions, all are its resultant boons.
Although accessibility, at a physical, social and digital level, and quality of assistive aids are only increasing for the good, availability and affordability to these resources itself remains a matter of dubiousness and uncertainties. High costs of pricey assistive gadgets and commercial screen readers make them out of reach for many – those struggling to earn a livelihood in developing countries and regions, those who are unable to receive funding of many thousands of rupees for an essential necessity, those who are deprived of opportunities and consequently cannot unleash their full potential.
Is it right for visually impaired people across the globe to suffer and remain seemingly incapable due to inevitable financial constraints? This was the question that Michael Curran and James Teh, two blind Australian programmers, asked themselves. These two youths founded a brainchild, which would later become an indispensable part of tens of thousands of blind and vision impaired folks globally, known as NVDA AKA Non Visual Desktop Access, a free and open source, and most importantly, community driven screen reader for Microsoft Windows.
NVDA reads aloud the text on screen in synthetic speech or renders it in Braille via a refreshable Braille display, and updates and notifies the visually challenged about ongoing on screen elements and activities, allowing them to fully interpret, analyse and utilize the power of computing.
However, a myth and misconception floats around among rehabilitation professionals or those working in the AT sector deeming NVDA as a hobbyist project, suitable only for casual and home environments, and not serious professional ones. This may have been the case a few years ago, but no longer is – NVDA is used by corporate employees, at workplaces, and at other important settings efficiently and fruitfully. NVDA is used by school, college and university students to read textbooks, take notes, complete assignments, create presentations, research information, so much that certain South African universities even circulate copies of NVDA on pendrives.
NVDA is versatile and extensible, with many add-ons and plug-ins available to maximize and extend its flexible functionality. It not only supports basic tasks like web browsing and word processing, but it is relied upon for somewhat complex to extremely convoluted tasks such as audio engineering, database management, science, mathematics and engineering, radio broadcasting and what not.
Being open source in nature, one can contribute to the NVDA project in a variety of ways – code, monetary donations and grants, localizations and translations etc. Dedicated community developers assist in programmatically enhancing and refining NVDA voluntarily, prominently NVDA teams in India, Japan, United States of America, etc. Other community volunteers proficient in their respective mother tongues freely translate NVDA interface and documentation into their regiona language for their linguistic community’s native benefit. Moreover, individual donations from users and corporate grants from companies such as Mozilla, Google, Adobe and others is what fuels NVDA to keep growing, proliferating, in usefulness and resourcefulness.
In simpler terms, NVDA’s utility could be demonstrated by some of its fundamental uses – NVDA can enable you to read and write in your choice of melodious dialect, it can allow you to be as well informed educationally, politically, and just generally as your peers, it permits you to socialize virtually with faraway friends and family, you can serenely peruse the information ocean of the Internet using NVDA, be technically savvy and financially independent, and also just capable of appreciating the wonders of science and technology, all this and further at no additional cost of expensive assistive technologies, alike your sighted counterparts.
Personally speaking though, apart from NVDA’s customizability and adaptability, what I most like about NVDA is the major role I, as any other end user of NVDA, can play in shaping this vital companion of mine. NVDA is influenced and regulated completely by user feedback, and the direction it takes is always what is in the larger interest of its user base. We can connect, communicate, correspond with and create the NVDA community, the force that ignites the spearheading work NV Access does daily.
Computer literacy, in this increasingly digitized era, is all the more crucial to be a skill set incorporated into the blind and visually impaired. Therefore, earnest endeavours like NVDA require your usage, your trust, your motivation and your participation to continue serving our population as it has been doing now for a decade. Yes, the project conceived and initiated in the April of 2006, is witnessing its tenth anniversary currently, with notable celebratory events being organized such as regional (Asian, Korean, Japanese and North American) and global NVDA users and developers conferences (NVDACon).
Now, it is your discretion, which will decide the future of NVDA; will you join this rapidly emerging technology and its bandwagon? Will you spread this cause across to others who need it? Will you make sure that the tiny role you can play in this movement is dutifully discharged? Because only you can, only you can help NVDA achieve its goal and motto – equal access at no additional cost.
The author of this blog had originally written and submitted this article for inclusion in the Insight Braille magazine, a quarterly release with content fully contributed by visually impaired individuals, covering subjects such as technology, travel, finance, poetry etc. For further information about Insight, or to order a copy of this magazine, please contact the Insight Editors.