Computers are for everyone

Did you know that an experienced blind person can use a computer at least as efficiently as a sighted person? If you want to write about a character with a visual (or some other physical) impairment, it doesn’t preclude that character from using a computer.

Assisstive technology (AT)

There’s a whole class of technology that helps people with physical challenges use computers. This is called assistive technology (AT). A lot of AT is focused on helping people with visual impairments, and that will be the focus of this post. But AT helps lots of people: Stephen Hawking is able to use a computer just by moving his cheek.

(The following paragraphs have a couple of YouTube links. If those links no longer work, try searching for “using a screen reader” on YouTube.com.)

People with diminished vision may use a screen magnifier, software which magnifies part of the computer screen. Here’s a short video of someone using a screen magnifier.

A person with little or no vision probably uses a screen reader, software which interprets what’s on the screen. Here’s a video (around 13 minutes long) of a woman using a screen reader. She has the screen reader set to read pretty fast (the reading speed is configurable), and it can go even faster. Someone who is good at listening to a screen reader can consume content even faster than a sighted user reading it off the screen.

Web accessibility

I’m a web programmer, and there is a vast array of techniques available to me to make web pages and web applications easier to use for people with certain types of difficulties (especially visual impairments). If you hear someone talking about web accessibility, they’re probably referring to these techniques. I don’t know nearly as much about this as I wish I did, and I quickly feel overwhelmed by the staggering amount of literature on the topic.

Making web pages accessible is important work. And it’s more than just the right thing to do. There is federal legislation requiring it, and there are real consequences in failure: there have been successful (and costly) court decisions requiring Netflix, Target, and institutions of higher education to make their electronic resources available to people with disabilities.

Here are a few simple things you can do to make your web pages more useful:

  1. When you create a link, make sure that the link text is meaningful by itself. People often tell the screen reader to read out a list of a page’s links. A link that just says “click here” is worse than useless.
  2. If the thing you use to make web pages allows it, provide alt text whenever you put an image on a web page. The alternative text should give a brief description of the image. The screen reader will read the alt text aloud, and this allows a visually impaired person to know what information you wanted to convey when you included the image. (And remember that uploading an image of text, a popular way of circumventing twitter’s 140-character length limit, only works if the user can read it.)
  3. If you are writing a long page with lots of different sections, use headers and sub-headers to break up the page (like the Web accessibility header on this page). Make sure you’re using actual headers, not just large text set off by itself (you probably want to look in the styles gizmo for something like “heading level N,” where N is a number between 1 and 7). People sometimes tell the screen reader to read off the page’s headers so that the user can jump straight to the part of the page that interests them.
  4. Make sure your page has good color contrast. Light grey text on a white background is really hard to read for all kinds of people. You can use the WebAIM color contrast checker to the test the contrast between two colors.

WordPress themes

At the time of this writing, I’m hosting this blog on wordpress.com using their free plan. As such I’m limited in the variety of themes I can use. The theme I selected (the twenty sixteen theme) is pretty bland, but it has better accessibility than most of the nicer-looking themes (which is why I picked it). Even so, it’s not perfect: the share this buttons have poor color contrast. This blog is still an experiment. If it seems successful, I’ll probably upgrade to one of the paid plans which claim to offer greater theme customization.

So if you have a character who’s as blind as a bat, she can probably use a computer even better than some 20/20 mouth-breather.

2016-03-11 emergency flash player update from Adobe

Adobe has released an update for flash player (here’s the security bulletin). Like Microsoft, Adobe usually release updates on the second Tuesday of the month (and they both did that earlier this week), but this update addresses serious problems in flash player, one of which is being actively exploited.

This is sometimes called an out-of-band update, because they’re releasing it off their normal schedule. That sometimes highlights the importance of the update.

So. Update your flash player.

March 2016 updates from Adobe and Microsoft

Today Adobe and Microsoft have released updates to their software to address critical vulnerabilities. Here’s the Adobe bulletin (it covers updates to Acrobat and Reader), and here’s the Microsoft bulletin (it covers updates to Internet Explorer, Edge, Office, .Net, and other components).

Personal backups are important

This post is a little different. It’s not about writing believable characters or situations. It’s about protecting your (the writer’s) computer files.

The hard drive in your computer is eventually going to fail. It’s inevitable, and it’ll likely happen with little or no warning. If you don’t have good backups, you’ll lose everything on your computer: your manuscript(s), research for your writing projects, pictures you’ve downloaded from your camera, banking information, all of it.

This happened recently to a relative. She didn’t have good backups, and her hard drive became unreadable. This was devastating to her, especially the loss of ten years’ worth of photographs. She later realized that she could recover many of the photos from an online photo service she’d been using, but she still lost a lot of files.

Backups can protect you against several other things things, too:

  • accidental deletions
  • the theft of your computer
  • malware that encrypts your files and asks you to purchase the decryption key (ransomware)

When you set up backups, you need to figure out where you are going to store your backups. Storing the backups on the same hard drive that you are backing up only protects you from accidental deletions. An external hard drive (something that connects via a USB cable) can be a good choice here. A quick search on amazon.com shows 1 terabyte external hard drives for around $55.

I’m not much of a Windows user, but it looks like backing up Windows files to an external device is a straightforward affair via the Control Panel.

Backing up a Mac is also pretty easy with Time Machine (I did this on my relative’s new Mac, and it just took a couple of minutes).

Backing up to an external hard drive is a great start, but it still doesn’t protect you from really terrible things like a fire, theft, or natural disasters (like a tornado). Even some malware may be able to delete or mangle your backup files.

You may also want to consider setting up off-site backups. This is something that backs up your files to some place that isn’t in your house. I’ve used CrashPlan for this1. It runs in the background on your computer (Windows, Mac OS X, even Linux) and backs up your files to the cloud. It also backs up every version of each file, so if your computer becomes infected by ransomware, you should be able to recover versions of your files prior to infection.

Looks like current pricing for CrashPlan is around $5 or $10 per month per user. I have a family plan which is around $15 per month, and it lets me run backups on up to ten computers.

The files on your computer are probably even more important to you than you realize. They are worth protecting.

1I don’t own stock in CrashPlan or anything, I’m just a happy customer.