Articles Archive

2015 Articles

The BEAT (Buhse's Easy Assistive Technology)

November 2014

Mac Text to Speech

Sorry to all of my faithful readers out there that I wasn’t able to get an edition of The BEAT completed for the past few months. As with everyone, the September rush was crazier than ever. During this busy time, however, I have had a chance to realize some new trends, the biggest being that the majority of the new students I have been meeting with are Mac users. This has also made me realize that I have been neglecting our Mac-using friends out there, so this is my first edition geared specifically towards you!

In previous editions of The BEAT, I have emphasized the necessity of creating accessible documents, whether in Word, as a PDF, or whatever other format you are using and this is primarily for people who use screen readers or other text to speech software (screen readers tell a person with a visual impairment everything that is on the screen while text to speech software just reads selected text). Historically, Apple has done a fantastic job with providing features that are very friendly to those with disabilities - all Mac computers have a built in screen reader called VoiceOver and text to speech called, errr… Text to Speech. I would recommend generally avoiding VoiceOver unless you are visually impaired as it can be VERY confusing if you don’t know how to use it properly (it enables certain key codes that can frustrate the unknowing user and what it reads won’t really make sense to most people). The text to speech, however, is great!

To turn on the text to speech, go to “System Preferences”, now in the “System” ribbon you will select “Dictation & Speech” (if you have an old iOS like me, it will just be called “Speech). Now select the “Text to Speech” tab and check-off the option for “Speak selected text when the key is pressed”. Directly below this it will say “Current key: Option+Esc” – yours might say something slightly different, but this is usually the default; what this means is that now if you highlight text somewhere on your screen and push the keys “Option” and “Esc” at the same time on your keyboard, that text will be read to you. You can change the “System Voice” if you don’t like the current voice, there are a number of voices with accents that I find to be quite soothing and sound less synthetic (more human) than the non-accented voices but this is really just personal preference. In addition, you can also slow down or speed up the rate at which the voice speaks.

This is a fun way to utilize some of the features built right into your Mac and can be quite useful for those who have difficulties reading or want an alternative way to take in information. This is a function I personally use quite regularly and would encourage every Mac user to give it a try as well!

August 2014


Have you ever wondered why people use hyperlinks? Do you even know what a hyperlink is? Well you’re about to find out! A hyperlink is the underlined link within a document that takes you directly to a website or other document if you click on it. This can be a very useful tool for keeping your documents look clean and doesn’t distract your eyes too much during the reading process as there isn’t long strings of content such as a website URL.

To create a hyperlink in most programs, all you need to do is highlight a few words (I’ll explain which words to highlight shortly), right-click, and select the “Hyperlink” option. A pop-up box will appear where you can select a specific document to attach or you can enter an e-mail address into the “Address” field.

By using a hyperlink for a website, someone with a visual impairment won’t have to read through the entire URL, which you can imagine would be pretty annoying. With hyperlinks, a person using a screen reader is actually able to scroll through just the hyperlinks if they want so they can skim across the links and select one without having to re-read the entire document, much like a sighted person could. This is where the naming of your hyperlinks is important; you do not want to say “to go to the U of M website, click here” and put your hyperlink on the “click here”. This is too ambiguous and can get confusing if you are scrolling through a number of different hyperlinks all titled the same thing. You want to make sure that your hyperlink name is concise and intuitive so it describes where it will take you, and is in amongst the text “when searching the U of M Website” and have “U of M Website” as your link.

Not only do hyperlinks keep your documents looking nice and clean, but they can really help make your documents more accessible – not to mention they look super cool!

I encourage everyone to try this out and contact me with any questions about proper use to ensure you can benefit from this function as well as to create a more accessible digital U of M.

July 2014

PDF Reflow

As you have likely experienced, some PDF's are hard to read because the font is too small. Thankfully, Adobe has an easy to use magnification built right into it. In case you aren't familiar with this function, it is in the third ribbon from the top, there is a large "-" and "+" sign with a percentage drop-box beside it, this allows you to make the image as large or as small as you would like.

Try expanding the document to 200%, then try 400% or even 800%! If the PDF was created in an accessible format (as discussed in a previous edition of The BEAT) you shouldn't even have to worry about the text becoming distorted or pixilated. What can be a bit of an nuisance, though, is having to scroll horizontally (side to side) to view an entire line, and then scroll down to get to the next line; this can be especially troublesome for someone who has low-vision and may have difficulties finding the scroll bar, leading to an interrupted, difficult reading experience.

It is by no coincidence, however, that Adobe has a solution to eliminate the need for horizontal scrolling! The solution is called "Reflow" – Adobe will adjust the formatting of the text so that it moves to the line below and fully eliminates the need to horizontally scroll (similar to the "Wrap Text" function in Excel). Reflow works the same in both Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Reader, and to turn it on, go to "View" along the top menu bar, followed by "Zoom", and one of the options will be "Reflow" (or you can use the hot key "ctrl + 4"). Now all of the text in the document will be as large as you need it and will wrap directly below so you can read in a smooth, continuous, vertical fashion.

I encourage everyone to try this out and contact me with any questions about proper use to ensure you can benefit from this function as well as to create a more accessible digital U of M.

June 2014

Alt Text

The last few editions of The BEAT have focused on formatting and saving your digital documents. But have you ever really thought about what your documents would look like if you couldn't see them? How often do you add pictures, graphs, or charts into documents to convey important information or even just to add some "flare?" If you are currently doing this, are you adding in "Alt Text?" I know, that was a lot of questions all at on but I am hoping to get you thinking about the content you are providing digitally.

"What is Alt Text?" you may be asking? Alternative Text is the written interpretation of an image. For example, an image of a cat playing with a ball of yarn could be described as "cat playing with yarn."

"Why do I need Alt Text?" For a person with a visual disability using a screen reader, the Alt Text will be read so that the person is able to get the same experience reading your document as someone who is fully sighted.

"Where do I add Alt Text?" Once you have inserted an image into Word, PowerPoint, or wherever else you may be working, you can right-click on the image and at the very bottom of the list you should see "format picture" – click it. Then, a new list will appear and at the very bottom of this list is "Alt Text." Now you have the option to put in a Title and a Description.

"How do I know what to enter as the description?" This part can get a little tricky as the description is very contextual as to how it can be interpreted. For example, that same picture from before of the cat playing with yarn, if inserted into a document about cat breeds, the description may read "Tabby cat," but if it is a document about why you love cats, it could read "Playful cat with ball of yarn." It is important to keep these descriptions concise and clear. As I mentioned, Alt Text can get a little complicated, so here is a link to some more detailed information.

I encourage everyone to try this out and contact me with any questions about proper use to ensure you can benefit from this function as well as to create a more accessible digital U of M.

May 2014

Word Format Styles

Have you ever looked along the top ribbon in Microsoft Word (or similar products) and wondered to yourself "What are all these buttons for"? If so, you would not be alone in thinking that; most people I talk to have always ignored most of the features and don't know what they are for or how they work (or why they are important). As it turns out, many of the features are not only useful for formatting your documents, but they are essential in creating an accessible document!

I will talk very briefly about the "Styles" as this is an easy adjustment that will not only make your documents look more uniform and save you time, but will make your document accessible for someone with a visual impairment to navigate the document. The "Styles" are a number of pre-formatted categories to choose from which includes Title, Sub-Title, Heading 1, Heading 2, and many more. If you don't like the look of the formatting, you can customize these details so it looks more how you prefer. Going forward if you want a sub-title, all you need to do is click the button instead of needing to change your font size, alignment, bolding, etc. In addition to this, now when you want to make a table of contents or convert to a PDF with Bookmarks, all of this information is already available and the process will be quick and easy!

However, saving you time isn't the only benefit to using the "Styles"; for a person using a screen reader, the style types are conveyed to the reader so that they actually know what is a title, a heading, or just the body text. If a title has just been centered and underlined, it will be considered as plain text by the screen reader and everything becomes one big jumble. Using the "Styles" will also allow the reader to navigate through the different headings, skimming through the document the same way a sighted person would.
To get started working with the pre-set "Styles" in Word, it can be a bit confusing. I encourage everyone to try them out and contact me with any questions about proper use to ensure you can benefit from these standard features as well as to create a more accessible digital U of M.

April 2014

Keyboard shortcuts, also known as "Hot Keys" or "Quick Keys" can be a very useful tool for everyone. Hot Keys are keyboard commands that allow you to navigate and act on your computer without needing to use your mouse (there are other uses, but for the sake of this article, this is all we will be looking at). They can be beneficial if you are feeling strain from using your mouse, if your mouse is old and shaky, or even just for simply increasing productivity. Both Mac and PC platforms have hot keys, but the examples I will be using are PC based (Mac users tend to be more familiar with these shortcuts because Apple has done a better job advertising them).

While reading this, I would like you to keep in mind what it would be like for an individual who has a visual impairment who is completely unable to use their mouse and hot keys are the only way they can use their computer. A good exercise would be to try navigating your computer as much as possible without using your mouse (especially through the internet) and see what sort of difficulties a person with a visual disability may encounter.

The Windows website has a complete list of all their hot keys, but I wanted to highlight just a few of the most common ones. If you press the CTRL and C buttons at the same time, this is your copy function – so anything that is highlighted will be copied. Now, CTRL and V is your paste function. This saves you from having to highlight, right-click, go down to Copy, go to your new document, click where you want, right-click, and Paste… too confusing and cumbersome! Another useful one is Ctrl and A – this allows you to highlight everything in your document, so now you can copy and paste the entire thing much quicker! One last function I will mention is regarding the Tab key, most people are aware that by clicking tab in Excel or while filling in a form will get you to the next column or field, but if you hold Shift and then click Tab, this allows you to go back to the previous column/field– now you don't need to move your hand to the mouse and click where you want.

I haven't even scratched the surface of what hot keys are available, so I would highly recommend you check out the hyperlink provided above to see what might be useful for you. This may not be the most "techy" edition of The BEAT, but I am always surprised by how many people are unaware that these sorts of commands exist. These are small changes that people can make that to improve efficiency.

March 2014

Almost everyone feels some stress at one point or another. Many people could benefit from learning new coping strategies to help navigate difficult times or would just like some useful hints to help deal with day-to-day stresses… If you think that you are a person who would benefit from this sort of thing, there is a new app that may be of some use. The Healthy Minds App available for iPad/iPhone/iPod is a great tool to help better track your moods and can even help discover some new coping mechanisms. This app is geared towards students, but is easily adjusted to meet the needs of anyone else.

The Healthy Minds App is a problem solving tool that will help you work through your stress and various moods systematically and will even help you schedule coping skills into your calendar if you know you have a large project or a hectic week coming up. Although there are many different avenues available to people who are feeling the stresses of everyday life, this App is an easy-to-use addition to any "toolbox". Stress can cause physical harm to your body, so it is important to try to keep a healthy mind. This app will not be the solution for those struggling with serious mental illness or suicidal thoughts, so it is important to seek professional help if necessary, but this is just one tool (of many) that can help bring some balance to your everyday life.

February 2014

Do you have trouble reading the information on your computer screen because it is too small? There are programs out there that can magnify your screen for you, such as Zoomtext, however, these sorts of programs can become quite costly. Did you know that Windows and Mac computers come with this sort of function built in? It doesn't look quite as nice as the paid programs and does not have all of the features, but is certainly a nice little tool to have available to anyone.

On a Mac, you need to go into "Universal Access Preferences" and click the "On" option in the "Zoom" section. Now, once you close out of this, all you need to do is hit the "Command" and "+" keys to enlarge or "Command" and "-" keys to make smaller. There are some viewing options that can be adjusted, but those will be more of a personal preference that each individual user can play with.

On a PC, Windows Vista, 7 and 8 will all have the same directions (Windows XP has the same functionality but to find them is slightly different – I won't get into that here as Windows XP will not be supported by the U of M soon). The easiest way to find the Magnifier is to go to the "Start Menu" and type in "magnifier" into the "Search" bar, the first thing that comes up will be the Magnifier. It can also be found by going to the "Start Menu", "All Programs", "Accessories", "Ease of Access", and selecting the "Magnifier". As a default it will be docked along the top, you can change this by choosing the "Lens" or "Full Screen" options. To increase or decrease the magnification, you can click the plus or minus icons, or click the windows key on your keyboard along with the "+" or "-" keys.

January 2014

Have you ever wished your computer could talk to you? Or more specifically, could read to you? Well the future of reading companionship is here! If you have an accessible PDF (also sometimes known as a searchable PDF) there are a few simple steps that you can take to have it read to you. Once your document is open in Adobe Reader click on the "View" button at the top, scroll down to the bottom where it says "Read Out Loud" and select the option to "Activate Read Out Loud". Once you have done this, you can click anywhere in your document and that section will be read to you. If you don't have a PDF of the document you would like read, just copy and paste whatever you have into a Word document and "Save As", but change the format to PDF. Voila!

This function can be very useful for everyone, including students with a print disability. It is also a good exercise in seeing how accessible your documents really are - Imagine being a student with a disability that prevents them from reading the document without the aid of an assistive device – that could be very frustrating and could prevent them from receiving vital information! Please do your part in making your documents as accessible as possible, find some more detailed tips on the SAS website.

November 2013

Electronic accessibility is becoming much more common in our ever day lives and you may not even know it. Most of your hand-held devices (smart phones and tablets) have built-in features that are not only useful for people with disabilities, but for everyone!

Did you know that your Apple devices (iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc) can read most text to you? It's true! To turn this feature on, go to Settings >> General >> Accessibility, then turn on Speak Selection. You can adjust the voice, the speed, and whether or not the words are highlighted as they are spoken (kind of like Karaoke). Now when you highlight most texts on your device, you will be given an option to "Speak", and now you can listen to your e-mails, text messages, and many other documents on your device!

Other SAS Suggestions