When a new version of the Microsoft operating system or its Office products become available, those of us using assistive technology start to get edgy. This is because we all wonder whether upgrading is going to put paid to our screenreader’s ability to work properly for us; whether a Braille display will be compatible; whether we need to purchase more expensive kit in order to keep up … you get the drift.
But I have tried to go with the flow over the years, and decided it was time to venture into the world of Windows 10. This meant having to upgrade my computers from Windows 7. And while on a roll, update Microsoft Office to 2016 from 2013 in the process. I completely skipped Windows 8 and 8.1 because reports about it were not exactly encouraging.
I began by updating to Windows 10 on my oldest laptop. I primarily use this machine for Skype conversations, producing Braille, and recording podcasts. My day-to-day work is done on my beloved desktop machine which I vowed to save until last!
The upgrade went smoothly, in all honesty. I followed the Windows prompts, using the JAWS screenreader until the upgrade began. It varies on how long the upgrade will take, but I gave it about two hours just to make sure, then went back to my laptop and activated Narrator. This is Microsoft’s attempt at a screenreader which is limited and not really suitable for long term use. While upgrading to Windows, JAWS won’t speak. Narrator told me the update was complete, so I began to move around the operating system with Narrator’s help, albeit limited in its capabilities.
Once I re-established contact with JAWS and ditched Narrator, I began to navigate my way around the various Windows 10 menus to customise my machine. I only have a version of Office 2007 on the laptop, so decided not to bother upgrading to 2016 as it serves my needs.
With that done, I went to update my second laptop which I keep attached to my hifi system downstairs. I primarily use this laptop for music, so it really only required the upgrade to Windows 10 and some customisation.
Finally, I decided to bite the bullet and upgrade my desktop machine to Windows 10 as well. This is where I took a very deep breath and a long pause. My desktop is the centre of my world. It is where I create all my documents, access Emails, surf the Internet, use a scanner, Braille display and printer, and is my first port of call for anything computer-related. It is the hub of my little Tardis, where my laptops are networked to it, and external drives are connected for storing backups of all my work.
So it was with great trepidation yet resolve that I upgraded. It went well, and I proceeded to update Microsoft Office to 2016 at the same time. Even this was straightforward until I launched Outlook … and noticed something was wrong …
My Braille display alerted an unusual message when I opened Outlook, but it went away as I started to scroll through my Emails. The spurious message turned out to be something relating to iCloud, so this was fixed. But it was when I wanted to reply to, or forward an Email, that JAWS began to hang. It felt like I was trying to fight with an elastic band that wouldn’t ping back. I checked all my settings, and found them to be as before, the way I like them. But nothing stopped my screenreader from misbehaving.
I eventually decided to contact the Microsoft Accessibility Help Desk. It is a dedicated team trained to understand how a screenreader works. They can go into your computer remotely to identify and fix any issues you are having. It is a free 0800 number, so I gave them a ring. I basically wanted to eliminate the Microsoft end of the deal.
The person assigned to my call was very pleasant. I explained my Outlook problems, and asked if he knew of any issues with Microsoft and JAWS. He attempted to take over my PC remotely, but he couldn’t get in. He said he could only see part of my screen, and asked if I had any antivirus software running that might be restricting him. I had Eset Smart Security on my computer, so the gentleman attempted to disable it. When he couldn’t, he tried uninstalling Eset with drastic consequences. Whether it was his remote software causing a conflict, or something else entirely, I have no idea, but Eset only half came out, meaning it was rendered useless to me.
By this time, I was utterly distraught. I am embarrassed to say that I then broke down, and my husband came to take over the call. I had visions of having to get the computer completely wiped and everything installed again from scratch. This takes time given the number of customisations you normally perform when it is up and running again. The tears came thick and fast as I imagined all sorts of complications that I might have to face, with no access to my favourite programs. Perhaps we have become too reliant on computers to serve our needs?
The gentleman at Microsoft said that I should sort out Eset, then contact them again to see if it would let his team into my computer to take a good look at Outlook. But I knew my first step was to contact the lovely people at Eset to fix their software for me. This they did, using special diagnostic tools to remove the program completely. Eset were fantastic, knowing exactly what to do as they have knowledge of screenreaders and, of course, their software.
Once Eset was completely removed, I found Outlook’s bizarre behaviour to be exactly the same. That at least ruled out my antivirus software playing tricks. Still on the hunt for a resolution, I decided to contact Sight and Sound Technology, the UK JAWS software dealer. Among other things, they uninstalled JAWS and put it back in; they uninstalled Microsoft Office 2016 and reinstalled it. And they ran other system diagnostics to check my computer was running properly. Everything came back with no anomalies, yet JAWS still continued to behave strangely in Outlook.
Technical Support at Sight and Sound said they would contact the JAWS developers, Freedom Scientific, in the US, and get back to me if they could come up with a fix. In the meantime, I was struggling to reply to, forward, or create new Emails because JAWS just fell over!
In a final throw of the dice, I reinstalled the AI Squared program, Window-Eyes. I had this on my PC before I upgraded it to Windows 10 to use as a second screenreader when JAWS wouldn’t play ball on a certain website. Different screenreaders can often behave in different ways. So, with Window-Eyes installed, I discovered that it allowed me to do all the things in Outlook that JAWS is now struggling with.
The current position is that until Freedom Scientific comes up with a fix or explanation, I use Window-Eyes when launching Outlook, and revert back to JAWS for other tasks. I prefer JAWS to Window-Eyes only in the respect that it copes better with a Braille display. It is the screenreader I have used since 1999, so I am obviously more comfortable with it. But take nothing away from Window-Eyes. It works really well on the ribbon menus, it lets you customise your settings and navigate like JAWS, and technical support is very good. In all honesty, I now interact with both pieces of software to get my tasks completed on a daily basis.
TO UPGRADE OR NOT TO UPGRADE
I am sure there is a moral in this story somewhere. My advice is to upgrade to Windows 10, but customise some of the features that are not currently working with a screenreader such as Edge and Cortana. Choose Internet Explorer as your default browser, let Windows take all the updates available, and keep away from some apps and the Windows Store, as they don’t work for us at the time of writing. Depending on where you have upgraded from, Windows 10 is relatively straightforward to use with assistive technology. My old printer and scanner drivers allow me to use these peripherals, and I can find all the features I require to work with or customise.
The difficulty with not upgrading is that while it saves you a lot of hassle in the short term, the long term consideration is that programs – including screenreaders – update to take account of the latest applications. This means that if you stay on an older operating system, support begins to dwindle, security breaches can occur, and some assistive programs won’t run as smoothly.
I am technically inquisitive by nature, and I believe the only way to learn is to embrace changes as they come along. This can have consequences if something goes wrong, however, particularly when you have no sight and simply rely on your screenreader to get you out of the s**t. I have to believe that either Microsoft or Freedom Scientific will find a fix for the Outlook problem I am experiencing.
Computer upgrades can be notoriously unpredictable, but you may be lucky and not encounter a single hitch if you move to the latest operating system. Don’t be put off, try not to cry or become stressed out, and just bear in mind it isn’t always plain sailing!