Let's face it. Children with visual impairments, even more so than their sighted peers, need to use computers. Why? Because it's one of the fastest and easiest ways to have access to information. Why hire someone to read to you when you can use a screen reader to read it to yourself whenever you want?
One of the first steps for the child and their family is learning how to entertain themselves on the computer. After some fun and educational activities on the computer, you can all feel more comfortable and competent about using the computer for more utilitarian purposes like writing a book report for school or exchanging e-mail messages with friends.
On this page, I attempt to offer some advice on software for a child with visual impairments. Sometimes the advice is on what not to buy. Sometimes it will be to forewarn you on the extent to which a given program will be independently accessible to the child. And, where and as much possible, I'll try to help you learn how to get and set up these games.
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE! If you have any comments or feedback that will make this information more helpful, accurate or complete, please let me know. If you've found out the hard way that a particular game is or is not worth getting for a visually impaired child, I'd love to add it to this list too. Send all comments and feedback to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A lot of factors contribute to how early you can introduce a child to computers: their age, their skill level and readiness, limitations imposed by their disabilities or medical condition(s), their family and school finances, educational priorities, and many many more.
Here is one person's view of how use of technology can all come together over time:
Computers running DOS as their primary operating system (286 megahertz and below) can run DOS-based games, using the built-in PC speaker for sound output. If possible, you can add a sound card to the system for $100-$150 or so to have improved sound quality.
Computers running Windows 3.1 as their primary operating system (generally 386 megahertz and above) can run DOS-based or Windows-based games. Multimedia titles are available and can be used if the PC has a sound card installed. You have to read the box on multimedia titles, however, since some run only on the Apple Macintosh (Mac) computer and some run only under the Windows95 operating system.
Newer computers that can run Windows 95 as their primary operating system (generally Pentium computers running at 75 megahertz or above, with at least 16 megabytes of RAM) have more choices since most of these computers come with a sound card already installed. Also, the additional memory that Windows95 requires makes multimedia games run better and faster.
To introduce a child to computers, start with what you can afford. The older computers mentioned first can often be found for $100-$300 from someone who's upgraded to a newer computer. The newest computers are now becoming available for under $1000. If all of these alternatives are too pricey, consider using the computer at the nearest public library.
Eventually, add assistive technology to the mixture: a screen reader (for blind children) or screen magnifier (for children with low but usable vision); a speech synthesizer, so that sounds can come out of your multimedia sound card while synthetic speech (i.e. a digitalized voice) is coming out of the speech synthesizer; text-to-Braille translation software and a braille embosser (i.e. a printer that produces printed output in Braille), if you want to produce braille output.
Initially the child can just be exposed to the computer. Choose games that hold their interest. Ask them to decide which game to play or which activities to choose within a game. Even with games that require using a mouse, position the mouse cursor and hold it still for them so they can click it. Look at the documentation that comes with the game (or its Help menu) and see if there are any commands that can be done using the keyboard alone. If so, teach a few to the child. You can also start acclimating them to the PC keyboard, noting where keys are and where their hands should be placed. (The PC Typer program mentioned below helps with this.) Child-sized keyboards are available, but I have yet to find anyone who recommends using them.
When assistive technology is first introduced, have the child "play" with the digitalized voice, adjusting its speed and pitch and developing their listening skills. Next, you may type a letter to them or a story, and have them use the appropriate commands to read aloud a line or paragraph of it. Gradually introduce more commands, after they've mastered those.
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What makes software accessible?
Factors to consider in choosing software include:
- Does it have auditory appeal?
- Can all or most features be accessed via the keyboard alone?
- Does it use high contrast colors, or are its colors user-configurable?
- Can its text be enlarged as much as is necessary to make it visible to a child with low vision?
- Is the screen simple and uncluttered, or busy and confusing?
- For Windows software, does it use standard menus?
- Is each field on the screen labeled, and is its label in a consistent location, e.g., above the field, to the left of the field, etc.?
- Is it configurable such that it can work more easily with assistive technology, e.g., customizable keystrokes, colors, etc.
- Is the documentation in accessible format, e.g., audio tape, Braille, text, HTML, or even bound such that it can be scanned?
You may also want to try the Children's Software Revue site which has databases of children's software which can be searched by publisher name or what rating it was given when reviewed by the Children's Software Revue. Another site is PEPsite which has a comprehensive directory of children's software publishers and older reviews from the Children's Software Revue.
You can also subscribe to a free magazine called Audyssey which is sent via e-mail roughly every 2 months. This magazine discusses games which are accessible to people who happen to be the blind and visually impaired. Refer to V.I. Guide's Magazine Rack page for instructions on how to subscribe.
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DOS-based speech-friendly games
Listed below is a sampling of some speech-friendly games that run under DOS. Most utilize the speaker that's built into every PC. They work best with a screen reader, although that isn't necessary if sighted assistance is available.
To download the file, right-click on the link and choose Save Target As... (in Internet Explorer) or Save Link As... (in Netscape Navigator). Once it has been downloaded, the file must be expanded using an uncompress program such as PKZIP/PKUNZIP or WinZip. (These and other compression utilities can be found at http://www.tucows.com or http://www.hotfiles.com.) Once you've expanded it, look for a file containing instructions (usually entitled README.TXT).
Most of these games cost between $10 and $30. They and many other games are available from Personal Computer Systems (PCS), 551 Compton Avenue, Perth Amboy, NJ 08861; phone (908) 826-1917, or via downloading from these sites.
- http://www.clark.net/pub/poehlman/readme.htm This site has a variety of speech-friendly games that can be downloaded for free. Games include: Life, Yahtzee, Black Jack, Poker, Battleship, Football, Slot Machine, Concentration, MasterMind, Roulette and more.
- http://www.simcon.net/jkitchen/ This is Jim Kitchen's site. Jim is a blind computer user who writes many free speech-friendly games. Games include a program that tests your reaction time to a changing color or sound, Master Mind, a slot machine game, Battleship, and Life. He also has a number of speech-friendly programs such as a grade 2 Braille reference guide, a menu program, a calculator, an alarm clock and an address book.
- ftp://ftp.outofsight.org.nz/pub/henrich/ This site has many of the same games that are the site immediately above this,
plus a few new ones like a Golf game and bible games. However, it also has many other speech-friendly (non-game) program files you can download for free as well such as alarm clocks, calculators, utilities, and a talking checkbook program.
- ftp://ftp.softcon.com This site, in its Magazine, Games and Textgame directories, has a large number of speech-friendly games, interactive fiction games as well as all past issues of the Audyssey gaming magazine (see above) available for downloading. It also has the Frotz and Winfrotz interpreters necessary to play some interactive games on an IBM compatible computer (when the game was originally designed for a different type of PC or operating system).
- Players place their battalion on a 9-by-9 grid, where rows are numbered A through I and columns are numbered 1-9. The types of ships are indicated by these abbreviations: P=PT boats, C=cruisers, D=destroyers, A=Aircraft carriers, S=Submarines and B=Battleships . You try to hit and sink your opponent's ships and he tries to do the same with yours. Hits are recorded in the grid with an "H"; Misses are recorded with an "M." S toggles sound effects on and off. F1 repeats the question/information. X toggles the display of the grid headings (A-I and 1-9)
- Humbug (interactive fiction)
- In interactive fiction, you take on the role of a character in the story. By typing commands at the keyboard, you (the character) takes part in the story, such as moving around, doing things and asking questions. This demo has some features (like Hints) disabled. It costs $20 to buy. Words recognized include: GO, LOOK, ASK, EXAMINE, LIST, INVENTORY PUSH, PULL, HELP, DROP, PUT, HIT, ATTACK, etc. Directions include: NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST, UP & DOWN. Using just the first letter of these commands is often acceptable. You can save your position via SAVE command and then subsequently use the LOAD command to restart a game from that saved position.
- ME2 Crossword Puzzle
- This is a demo version of a game that allows a visually impaired user to work with existing crossword puzzles or design their own, using braille or speech output as well as sounds from a SoundBlaster-compatible sound card. Arrow keys are used to navigate between words in the puzzle. Function keys repeat parts of the screen such as the number of letters in the word, the clue lines and the help window. Escape exits the game. Pressing the Home key displays a diagram showing the current word and all words which cross it. Be sure to download the readme file for additional installation instructions.
- ME2 Memory Challenge
- This is a demo version of a game written for visually impaired users of all ages, including pre-school children. In this game, the player tries to match pairs of sound effects hidden behind black and white squares on the screen. Each time a pair of the same sound effect is selected, the crowd cheers and the squares turn to colored squares. In the demo, the user is limited to only correctly guessing three pairs of sounds before being required to start a new game. Be sure to download the readme file for additional installation instructions.
- The demo is restricted to 8 rounds (roughly a turn around the board). It costs $30 to buy. You get to choose the amount of money each player starts with and each player's token. There are sound effects as the dice is rolled and the token is moved. There are several commands to recall information (who owns what, what the prices/rents are, find out how much money someone has, etc.)
- PC Typing Tutor
- This is a demo version of a typing tutorial designed specifically to be used with speech synthesizers, screen magnifiers and screen readers to learn, practice and improve keyboarding skills. Runs in DOS only. It supports 8 types of speech synthesizers and is keyboard-specific (i.e. function keys along top vs. side). It has simplified screen navigation, such as: F2 repeat menu or lesson title, Spacebar to read current line, F5/F6 to decrease/increase speech rate, F9/F10 to decrease/increase volume, and Alt to turn off speech.
- Shooting Gallery
- For 1-4 players. It supports your choice of 50 types of guns and 4 shooting ranges: (a) skeet range, where you aim at clay pigeons, (b) rifle range, where you aim at a cardboard target, (c) pistol range, where you aim at a human silhouette (d) junk yard, where what you aim at varies. Varying tones indicate where you're aiming, e.g., foot to head in pistol range). The object is to fire the gun (using the Spacebar or Enter key) when it's aimed appropriately.
- Trivia 2000
- This is much like Trivial Pursuit and it supports 1-6 players. You can choose how many pies it takes to win. Categories are People and Music. Simplified navigation with screen reader, mostly F1 through F6. Since an incorrect answer could be due to a typographical mistake, the game will accept retries.
- VIP Gegs
- This is a variety of a word scrambler game. Given 5-7 letter words, you have to guess what it spells. Also supports scrambled phrases (music phrases, movie phrases and cliches). It offers simplified navigation with a screen reader, such as arrow keys or letters to select menu options. It gives hints, although the hints are not always very helpful.
- For 2-9 players. It offers simplified navigation if a screen reader is used. For instance, F1, F2 and F3 read various portions of the screen. R to roll dice. Letters A-N to indicate how you want to score something. Escape to exit.
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Windows-based speech-friendly games
Listed below are some Windows-based games, along with a description of them and an indication of its accessibility.
Many of these titles are available from retailers such as CompUSA, Computer City, Toys R Us, Egghead Software, plus mail order companies such as PC Connection (1-800-800-5555 or http://www.pcconnection.com).
There is also a growing number of accessible games written for the Windows platform. These can be downloaded from http://www.gamesfortheblind.com and http://www.mindseye2.com/.
- 3,800 MIDI Magic (also called MIDI Magic)
- Priced at a very reasonable $6.95, but available only from Cyberguys (1-800-892-1010 or http://www.cyberguys.com, as part #160-0910), this runs on Windows95 or Windows 3.1. This CD features a program that plays MIDI music files (___.MID) and contains hundreds of MIDI files as well. Through the player, you can listen to the music, change its tempo, change its instrumentation and even write your own music. Although you cannot write music without using a mouse, much of its playback capability is keyboard accessible. Also, you can play any MIDI files with this, so you can add your own favorites.
- ABCs Jungle Jukebox
- Priced around $20 to $25 and available from most software retailers. It runs under Windows95 or Windows 3.1. It is aimed at children aged 3 to 5. The object is to click on various hot spots to find hidden coins. Once you've found a hidden coin, you can pop it in the jukebox to play one of 3 games: Hip Hop, Jungle BeBop or Word DoWop. All games involve clicking on a letter on the jukebox, however the child can type the letter on the keyboard. Other than that, participation must be with sighted assistance.
- Barnyard Rhythm and Moos
- Priced around $20 to $25 and available from most software retailers. It runs under Windows95, Windows 3.1 or on the Mac. It is aimed at children aged 3 to 7. There are 3 areas to this game: a song player, music videos and exploring the farm. The first 2, while not keyboard accessible, offer very engaging music. The Exploring The Farm area involves clicking on hotspots to have sounds and songs played
- Brain Quest (3 editions)
- These games, priced around $24.95, are made by IBM. There are editions for 1st grade, 2nd grade and 3rd grade. The object of the game is to answer questions to provide brain power (i.e. fuel) for a family taking a trip. The questions are read aloud and when the mouse cursor hovers over each of the multiple choice answers, the answers are read as well. The categories include math, science, language arts, and social studies. One or all categories can be selected for a given game session. Among other places, these games can be purchased on-line from Big Kids Productions.
- Junior Field Trip
- Priced around $20 and available from most software retailers. It runs under Windows95 and Windows 3.1. It is aimed at children aged 5 through 8. In this game, you follow Buzzy the Knowledge Bug as he takes you to the jungle, the airport and the farm. Explore the areas and find out about the items, people, and animals you see. There are games areas within each area. In the Jungle, the games are Find It, Coloring Book, Jungle Jumble, Anteater Feeder and Trivia. The games are not very appealing to visually impaired children and there's no keyboard accessibility. The exploration is okay but fairly information intensive, so it may be more suitable for kids who are comfortable doing a lot of educational listening
- K-Chess Elite
- This chess game, sold by Ark Angles, is reportedly very speech friendly. It is priced around $39 and can be purchased over the Internet.
- Kid Phonics I
- Priced around $44.95 and available at most software retailers. It runs under Windows95, Windows 3.1 or on the Mac and is aimed at children aged 4 through 7. In this CD, Sound Buster and Word Builder games designed to teach sound discrimination, word building and sentence building are featured. In the Playroom, you can also hear 5 songs. This is a good example of a game that, while not accessible, can be appealing and certainly has educational value. There's also a Kid Phonics II game.
- Lamb Chop Loves Music
- Priced around $28 to $40 and available at Toys R Us and most software retailers. It runs under Windows95, Windows 3.1 or on the Mac. It is aimed at children in preschool through grade 3. This CD features the "Bremen Town Musicians" story read aloud, plus several musically-oriented games. It also has a Music Store where kids can learn about and listen to a wide variety of instruments. It has tremendous auditory appeal.
- Living Books series
- Priced around $10-30 and available at most software retailers. The titles in this series, such as Dr. Seuss's ABC, Berenstain Bears and Arthur Books, run under Windows95 or on the Mac. They are typically aimed at children in preschool through grade 3. These are books that are read to you and, while they are read to you, the words are highlighted on the screen. They also offer some degree of interactivity. With sighted assistance to "drive", a young child could find these quite appealing. Also, IntelliTools has developed an Instant Access product which makes 16 of the Living Books titles instantly accessible via an IntelliKeys keyboard or a switch.
- Storybook Weaver Deluxe
- Priced around $20and available at most software retailers and also at http://www.mecc.com/. It runs under Windows95, Windows 3.1 or on the Mac. It is aimed at children aged 6 through 12. In this CD, kids can write their own story and embellish it with clipart and sound clips provided (or that they create). The typed-in text can be read aloud by a built-in voice synthesizer that plays through a standard sound card. The sound quality is fairly primitive and there's no ability to add words to the dictionary to correct its pronunciation. It could be a good choice to help young children get used to a digitalized voice and a regular computer keyboard, though.
- True Colors
- Priced around $20 to $30 and available from http://www.odysseytales.com/. It runs under Windows95, Windows 3.1 or on the Mac. It is aimed at children in kindergarten through grade 2. In this CD, a story is read aloud (running either independently, or with the mouse used to move to the next page). There are 4 activities (Keyboarding/Spelling, Math, Rhyming, and Color Mixing). The Color Mixing is not at all accessible and the others are accessible only with sighted
- Priced around $20-$30. Available from most software retailers, this game runs on Windows95 and Windows 3.1. Age level is approximately preschool through kindergarten. In this CD, there are 2 components. The first, called Tuneland, is several scenes, where the user clicks on various hotspots to see animations and hear music. No keyboard accessibility except for Shift-___ combinations to move from one scene to another (Shift-M to go to the Mountain, Shift-T to go to the train station). In the other component, Tuneland Tune Player, just the music is played. While the music is terrific arrangements of about 40 nursery rhymes, the player is not keyboard accessible at all.
- Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree storybook
- Priced around $32.95 and available from most software retailers, this game runs under Windows95 or Windows 3.1. It is aimed for children aged 3 to 8. This Winnie the Pooh story is read aloud in English or Spanish, either straight-through, or with the child exploring along the way by clicking on hot spots. Some hot spots play music and some play games. It is not very accessible via the keyboard.
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Other speech-friendly games
Listed below are games which do not run on PCs. Some, for instance, are handlheld stand-alone game units that run on batteries.
- This company sells accessible versions of classic arcade games and present a "level playing field" for players with unequal abilities. Each game contains a control panel to allow users to adjust the major games functions through a very wide range. With these features, LevelGames can be played by players of any age and almost any ability. Games include: BrickOut, Ruby Ridge, and Alien Invasion.
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Low vision accessible games
Listed below are games which offer some degree of accessibility for children with low vision
- Interactive Journey series
- The Interactive Journey series, by The Learning Company, (Interactive Math Journey, Interactive Reading Journey) are targeted at grades K-3. When used with a screen magnifier, it works pretty well since the screens aren't overly cluttered.
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Dictionaries and Encyclopedias
Although I don't have firsthand knowledge, threads in the GUISPEAK mailing list indicate that the American Heritage dictionary is pretty speech-friendly.
The CD-ROM Access Project, sponsored by the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media, tested 4 multimedia encyclopedias (Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, Microsoft Encarta '97 Encyclopedia, 1997 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica CD '97) and using 3 different screen readers and 2 screen magnifiers. Read their report to see how they regarded each encyclopedia's accessibility. The CD-ROM Access Project also tested a variety of educational and entertainment software (such as Infinity City, Astro Algebra, SimAnt and MathView) to determine how accessible they were when using various screen readers and screen magnifiers. Read their CD-ROM Access Analysis Finding to learn what they discovered.
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- Accessible Games
- This site offers Windows 95/98 games designed specifically for blind and visually impaired users. Most of the games have been tested to ensure their compatibility with the JAWS and Window Eyes screen readers. You can buy the games individually ($12) or in a collection of 8 on a CD ($79).
- Adventure Plus CD
- Disability Specialtys offers a CD containing over 390 DOS-based text games and over 60 Windows-based text games. It also contains the tools and utilities needed to allow you to create your own games! Price is $40.
- Audyssey Gaming Magazine
- Visit http://www.espsoftworks.com to subscribe to an online magazine that discusses computer games that are accessible (and fun!) for visually impaired users. Much of the game software can be downloaded via from Paul Henrichsen's web site.
- Blade's Armoury
- This is Adam Taylor's web site which contains, according to him, 'an arsenal of hints, cheats and FAQs about various games for the blind and some his personal favorite arcade and PC games.' Games discussed include Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM), Nethack, Master of Orion and other text adventure games. He also has a download area with current versions and patches of some of these games.
- Infocom Masterpieces
- This page has information on how to order collections of many of the Infocom text-based adventure games that are very hard to find. Infocom is widely believed to have been the best manufacturer of text-based games, but the popularity of those games waned when multimedia became available. The CDs cost $8.95 each, in collections according to topic: Sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, mystery and adventure. They run under DOS, Windows and the Macintosh.
- Snacky Pete's Text Adventure Archive
- Although not as popular with the public at large as they used to be, interactive fiction games (also known as text adventure games) usually take the form of a story where you're a participant in the story. For instance, it could be a mystery and you're the detective assigned to the case. The scene of the story is introduced and your role is made clear, and then you're on your own! It's up to you to use text "commands" to move about, ask questions, do things, etc. These games can be great fun and are especially suited to older visually impaired children! This site offers many games available to be be downloaded and run under MS-DOS.
- Sound Computing CD of speech-friendly software
- Sound Computing offers a CD containing a comprehensive collection of speech-friendly freeware, shareware and demo programs. The CD and its accompanying 2-track explanatory cassette is called "Top Win Extra." Although much of its contents can be downloaded from the Internet, having it all in place is a big convenience. For more information, including a full listing of the CD's contents and purchase options, send a blank message to email@example.com.
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