by Matt Hackert
From the Editor: Matt is one of the new-comers to the staff, and his inquisitiveness and ability to communicate are a real plus for the Braille Monitor. A caller originally rang me to complain about the frustrations of using a computer but mentioned with some appreciation this software and asked if we might want to run a review. Matt readily agreed, and here is what he says:
GuideConnect, from Dolphin Computer Access, is a self-contained, accessible productivity and entertainment suite for the blind. It is self-voiced and includes an email client, web browser, word processor, calendar, address book, and music player, along with other miscellaneous utilities. Its walled-garden, menu-driven design simplifies use and reduces the number of commands needed to achieve competency with a computer and stay connected with loved ones and the digital world.
It runs on Windows computers and tablets, and there is a set-top box version which allows for use via television. GuideConnect is not available for iOS or Android devices. Additionally, there is a Dolphin Remote which works with both the computer or set-top version. Finally, in most instances, voice dictation is available for inputting text. GuideConnect is an overhaul of Dolphin Guide, which some readers may already be familiar with. GuideConnect has reduced the number of keystrokes needed and has removed some less-popular features and outdated technologies that the older Dolphin Guide included. In addition, GuideConnect has added some features, notably connectivity with Bookshare, NFB-NEWSLINE®, and the NLS Talking Book program.
This article primarily focuses on the GuideConnect package. Another product worth mentioning offered by Dolphin Computer Access is GuideReader. Essentially, they removed the other utilities like the word processor and web browser and left just the books and newspapers to connect with NLS BARD, NFB-NEWSLINE®, and other libraries. While I did not download and test GuideReader, I feel it is safe to presume these functions work identically to how they work as part of GuideConnect. But GuideReader may be a more affordable option to someone not interested in all the other bells and whistles.
One word of caution I feel should be made very clear: while GuideConnect is very easy to use and comes with a lot of features and tools, I cannot overstate the point that it should never be used as a precursor to learning a fully functional screen reader such as JAWS or NVDA. Unfortunately, this approach is frequently adopted in technology training for the blind, and it routinely sets students up for failure when they try to make the transition from Dolphin to running a computer without the “training wheels.” There is very little common ground or transferrable knowledge, and the student might as well start from square one.
That being said, it can be a very useful way for someone who has lost sight later in life to maintain connection with loved ones without the challenges inherent in learning a screen reader and all the intricacies of operating a computer. GuideConnect may also be an appropriate solution in certain instances where the student has a brain injury or other cognitive challenges. I feel it best to leave that determination to those who are professionals in access technology training, from the perspective of Structured Discovery, but certainly not used as a short-cut approach to make learning a screen reader easier.
GuideConnect includes the following features:
Installation of the program is fairly simple, although it may be a challenge for some that the application is targeting. Connecting to my Gmail account got a little tricky. Google alerts you to confirm you authorized a third-party application to connect to your account. Connecting my other accounts such as NLS BARD, Bookshare, and NFB-NEWSLINE® were as simple as just providing my login credentials. My impression from reading their support materials is that the expectation is a family member or friend will be called upon to do the initial setup for someone who wishes to use GuideConnect.
Navigating through GuideConnect is simple and straightforward. One need only use the arrow keys and the F2 key, which accesses an “Actions” menu, akin to the common context menu many Windows users are familiar with. Most everything works as advertised, and other than typing information into text fields, you really can get around most things with nothing more than the four arrow keys and the F2 key. Additionally, most editing areas also allow for voice dictation.
I do have to make note of one exception, that being the web browser. Now, I cannot fully blame the developers for this issue; as a former access technology instructor, I can state with some authority that learning web navigation with a screen reader is probably the most difficult of all fundamental computer skills to master. When a software developer tries to implement a scheme for web navigation with minimal commands and concepts to learn, (stripping down many of the parts of a full screen reader that a blind user relies on), the developer takes take away many of the enhancements that one learns over time which allows the blind user to become more efficient at using the internet.
That being said, the browser built into GuideConnect is quite simple. It includes a “search this webpage” feature for finding text within the webpage you’ve loaded. It offers links lists and headings lists which you also find elsewhere. You can press the letter H or Shift + H to navigate on a page by heading. That’s about it for the extent to which GuideConnect overlaps with other screen readers. When an edit field is in focus, it reads the label and tells you to select to enter text. Similar instructions are given when focus lands on check boxes, radio buttons, and other common form controls. But there is no analogue to JAWS’ “Forms mode” or NVDA’s “Object” and “Browse” modes.
As an experiment, I tried to purchase a copy of Stephen King’s The Shining on Amazon.com. Without many of the features in JAWS that improve usability of websites, I found it very tedious even finding my search results, and I felt I already had an advantage being familiar with its website, having used it with JAWS and NVDA in the past.
Still though, perhaps for looking up recipes and reading news stories or blogs, it may be sufficient for some users. I tried shopping because I felt that may also be an activity many people using GuideConnect would appreciate having access to.
On the other hand, one feature I feel worth mentioning as a positive is GuideConnect’s interface with the National Library Service Talking Book Program. In particular, I appreciate the ability to listen to audiobooks from BARD directly on my computer. This is something that, to my knowledge, is not available any other way; you must download files and unzip them onto a flash drive, or otherwise transfer them to proprietary reading hardware like a Victor Stream. Software like BARDExpress and the Victor Companion streamline this process in some cases, but it still involves extra steps. With GuideConnect, you don’t even have to add a book to your Wishlist first like you would do with the BARD Mobile iOS app.
GuideConnect has a thorough settings menu giving the user robust control of many accessibility features and other configuration items. There are multiple voice options, controls over verbosity, and typing feedback. While you can select announcement of typed characters, words, or both, I was disappointed that you could not disable all typing feedback. Also, while you can adjust the speech rate, the fastest setting was still slower than I am accustomed to hearing from my screen reader. I can’t say, however, how many other users might end up feeling that way as well.
While I am completely blind and did not evaluate the low vision options, this section also included a wide variety of options to configure, including magnification, enlarged mouse pointers, and various color schemes.
While I was unable to experiment with setting up all of the various options, particularly OCR, voice dictation, and printing, I feel GuideConnect is a well-built product for a particular market. I have to reiterate that I would not recommend GuideConnect as a “bridge” to learning a full screen reader, and I feel it would be extremely limiting to use it in an employment capacity. But for individuals who have lost their sight later in life, perhaps after retirement, and do not have the patience required to learn computing nonvisually, this product is one that would work well. The initial installation and setup of accounts may require assistance, but if you don’t have someone available to help with setting up the program, GuideConnect comes with telephone, email, and remote assistance.