I toyed with the idea of changing my site’s tagline to, "Text to speech unavailable here," while posting the rest of the #Mastodon guide for #ScreenReader users, but I didn’t feel like dealing with that subset of people who take things so literally and would act accordingly.
Whenever one of the humans asks me if i no where to find deaf or hearing impaired lifeforms after seeing my white cane, I pretend I’m in one of the time traveling episodes of #Supernatural, and I ended up in the ’60’s. It keeps me from going all monster on them and attracting the attention of local hunters.
What is This?
This is the third in a series of posts that describes how to use Mastodon if you are a screen reader user. It is an alternative form of documentation, but is not intended to replace the originaldocumentation for Mastodon or your screen reader. If you have just found this post, I strongly suggest you go back and read the first two chapters, links to which are in the next section.
The Road So Far…
- Chapter One gave an introduction to the series, explained my reasons for writing it, and suggested things a person might need before joining an instance.
- Chapter Two took a closer look at what Mastodon actually is, gave details about how to join instances, and briefly described the signup process.
If you haven’t done these things, now is your chance to go back and read these chapters. Otherwise, move on to the next section.
What is in This Chapter?
This chapter walks you through the process of completing your profile, as well as sending your first post, know as a Toot.
Before We Begin…
Before we begin, I want to talk about keyboard shortcuts. Rather than list all of the keyboard shortcuts for Mastodon, I ‘ve decided to bring them up when they occur in context. For example, when we are talking about sending a new post, those keyboard shortcuts will be listed in the directions. You can find a complete, out of context list here, or under the “Getting Started” section of your home page for your instance.
Similarly, I’m not going to list key commands for every screen reader. This guide assumes that you are mostly familiar with your own screen reader, or that you at least know how to access the documentation. The exception to this is when I need to make an example, or point out a situation where I know a specific screen reader behaves differently than expected.
I have not personally tested every screen reader. I know people with other screen readers are quite successful at using this platform, but I’m not aware of every single quirk there is. If you find that something doesn’t behave as described, feel free to leave it in the comments section, or use the contact form on the Contact page to get in touch. I’m even willing to work with you to try and work through any issues you may experience, as I know this is a lot of information.
For the record, I use Chrome with Chromevox on ChromeOS. Your experience may vary depending on browser, screen reader, and instance.
If you plan to primarily use a mobile device, chapter Six (to be published) will talk more about apps for this platform. You will need to consult the app’s documentation to bridge the gap.
Terms in This Chapter (in order of discussion)
- Animated Avatar
- bot account
- profile directory
- verified content
Completing Your Profile
Now that you’ve signed up for an instance, it’s time to create your profile. This is what other users will see when they come to your page on the instance. It does not offer as many options as a standard Facebook profile, but it’s also got more customization and flexibility than other microblogging services typically offer.
To edit your profile, do the following:
- Log in to your instance.
- If your screen reader puts your focus on the “Compose new Toot” box, move away from it, and then go to the top of the page.
- Find the link that says “Edit profile”, and click it.
- Use standard navigation to move through and fill out the web form. If you move through the page using the arrows rather than the tab key, you’ll find helpful hints for each piece of content you can include. They will also be described here.
- When finished, click the button that says “Save Changes”.
All of your profile elements are optional. Some of these you’ve most likely seen before, and some of these will be new. I’ll go through them now.
This is where you put your name, or what you like to be called. You can include emojis. It’s worth noting that, unlike Facebook, Mastodon does not require you to use your real name.
A Header is an image that goes at the top of your profile. you can use it to express an interest, hobby, belief system, etc. Note that whatever picture you use will be resized to 1500x500px, and is limited to a size of 2MB.
An avatar is a picture, separate from your header, that represents you, the user. The maximum file size is 2MB, and the picture will be resized to 400x400px.
Be Picky About Your Pictures
When choosing both your header and avatar, remember to make sure both pictures keep to the code of conduct for your instance. For more information about instances and codes of conduct, see Chapter Two
An animated avatar is an avatar that moves, like the pictures in Harry Potter. Mastodon lets you use these, but keep in mind that many users find animated avatars distracting, and these kinds of avatars can be dangerous for people who are prone to seizures. It seems best to avoid these to me, but that’s just my own experience.
Your bio is your biography. Not the kind that starts something like, “I was born on a dark and stormy night in the heat of summer,” but a snapshot of the things you’re interested in. If you put a hashtag (#) on these, you can add yourself to the profile directory, which lets others find you by interest. If you don’t want that, don’t hashtag, and uncheck the box to include your profile in the directory. You can also lock your account, so that people have to send you requests to follow you.
A bot account is an automated account. If you’re reading this, you’re not one of them.
Metadata is the section of your profile whete you put things that didn’t make it into your bio, but you want people to know about. You can put up to four items here. Each item gets a label, and a place for the content. This is a good spot for links to other profiles.
verified content is a way to verify to users that you own the content your linking to in your metadata. It uses rel=”me” links to do this. Rel=”me” is far beyond the scope of this discussion, but you can check out my H-Card in the sidebar of this page to see them in action.
Here are some suggestions for completing your profile. The best thing to do is to try each thing on to see if it fits you. You can edit your profile as often as you like.
- Be authentic. Mastodon is a big world. You’ll find someone who shares your interests.
- Remember that the bio is only a snapshot. It’s okay if not every detail is there. That’s what posting is for.
- Consider including your pronouns somewhere in your profile. Mastodon has become very popular for GLBTQIA folks, and the result ispeople may be uncomfortable making assumptions based on your name, physical appearance, etc. To make sure everyone has a comfortable experience, provide your pronouns so people will know how to refer to you. It can either go directly in your bio, or be part of the metadata.
Now that your profile is complete and you’ve saved the changes, find the link at the top of the page that says, “Mastodon”. Click it to return to the main page. You’re ready to send your first post.
Posting Your First Toot
A Toot is what Mastodon calls users’ statuses. In this section, we’ll be posting a toot that says, “Hello World.” From the main page of your Mastodon instance, press Alt+N to compose a new toot. Alternatively, use your screen reader’s jump command for edit boxes to get to the compose box. Once you do, use the command that lets your screen reader know you want to enter text.
Elements of the Compose Box
You can use Tab and Shift+Tab to navigate the compose box. We’ll be discussing what each element does in more detail in the next chapter, but here’s what you can expect to find.
- Multi-line edit box.
- Insert Emoji dropdown.
- Add Media button.
- Add a Pole button.
- Adjust Status Privacy dropdown.
- “Text is not Hidden” dropdown. This is where you can set a content warning.
- Toot button.
Compose Your “Hello World” Toot: Method One
- Navigate to the compose box with Alt+N, or with the jump command for edit boxes specific to your screen reader.
- Make sure your screen reader is set to enter text into the box. Common names for this are Forms mode (JAWS), Focus Mode (NVDA), etc.
- Type “hello World.” into the box without the quotes.
- Tab until you hear “Toot”, and activate that button.
Composing Your “Hello World” Toot: method Two
- Type “hello World.” into the box without the quotes.
- Press CTRL+Enter to send the Toot.
In Chapter Four, we’ll be taking a more detailed look at working with posts, as well as finding people to follow. In the meantime, this is a good time to sit back and relax. It’s been a long road so far.
Drafting Chapter Three of Changeling’s Guide to Mastodon for screen readers. I didn’t realize describing the profile section could be so complicated. This platform really does let you include lots of information about yourself.
You may have once been the cadillac of Bibles, but your WordPress editor is hell for screen readers.
I have mixed feelings about the recent swarm of ADA lawsuits. It’s great that there’s awareness, but a lot of these businesses don’t even know anything’s wrong until they get nailed with legal papers, and it just feels wrong. Back on the bright side of things, this introvert gets to practice their people skills every time someone contacts me wanting information about it.
I spent 10 years watching people adjust to blindness, and telling them my blindness is different because I was born with it, and there was no adjusting. Now I find out there is more than one way to have the adjustment experience. I’m also learning to count spoons…:(
Unpopular opinion: When people with vision come up with a product that translates colors, facial expressions, etc. into sound to give blind people access, I, as a blind person, don’t want or need it. I’ve had 30+ years to work with my won understanding and perceptions of these things, and I don’t want someone subjecting me to their impressions of it and acting like it’s the biggest favor they’ve ever done for me.
Last week, I posted about my experience with HIMS Inc. and the nightmare I went through to get my SmartBeetle braille display repaired, only to have it break again and discover it was effectively totaled. You can go back and find that post if you like, but the summation is that it was a horrible experience, HIMS Inc. is the Yellow Eyes to my Winchester Brothers, and there’s no changing my mind. The morning after I posted that, I ordered the Orbit20™, priced at $449 before tax and shipping. As I’m drafting this, I’ve the device just under three hours, which is long enough you me to have formed my opinion and feel comfortable sharing it.
Why This Over Other Reviews?
The other reviews I’ve seen go through the unboxing of the Orbit20™, call it a nifty device, then complain about the lack of cursor routing keys. Since I’ve seen those reviews, I was webl-warned before I purchased, it has an impact on some use features, but more moving on. Also, I’m not going to spend time on the unboxing because that’s information you can find on The Orbit Reader 20™ product page. In fact, if you don’t get all the items in the box, you’re supposed to call the seller. What you’ll find are my impressions from using the device.
At the time of this writing, I’ve only tested the device as a bluetooth display for my iPhone ITS running iOS12.1.2. I cigure that’s what most of my readers will be interested in, and I that imagine the stand alone reader and notetaking capabilities would be much different from this experience.
About The Layout
For purposes of this post, the important thing to understand about the layout of the Orbit20™ is that the six keys for entering Braille are at the very top of the unit, there is a circle arrows with a select button in the center between and slightly below the six input keys, the spacebar is below the circle of arrows, and dots 7 and 8 are on the left and right sides of the spacebar respectively. This means that dots 7 and 8 are well below the main six input keys, and I’ll get to exactly why that’s important shortly. The device’s exterior is made entirely of plastic, and let’sskip the Greek that is actual dimensions and just say that the unit is a little chunky in the hand compared to the standards of a lot of electronics you see these days. The positive to that is that it actually feels durable, which we could say is a nice contrast to a lot of today’s electronics.
Reading and Interacting
Since I’m using this to interact with my iPhone, the way I use the Orbit20™ is probably different from the way someone who uses it to interact with a PC might experience this product. If you are doing that, you’re welcome to share your experiences in the comments, just be respectful.
14 Vs. 20 Cells
I noticed this difference right away between the Orbit20™ and my SmartBeetle. Basically, there’s practically portable, and then there’s sacrificing functionality in the name of portability. At 20 cells, you can read most app names without panning the screen, unless there’s a notification baddge. With 14 cells, I often had to pan at least twice to read many app names. This difference really comes into play when I’m reading email, messages, or social media posts, especially when the content has multiple emojis, the descriptions of which can end up feeling like their own paragraph.
Most of the navigation can be performed using the circle arrows. Push the right arrow to move to the next item on screen, the left arrow for previous, and the select button to do the double-tap. You can use the up and down arrows to move between items based on the setting of the rotor. You can also perform these actions with the six main keys and the spacebar, but you’ll be switching between your left and right hand a lot, so the other hand can do the reading.
Commands Using Dots 7 or 8
Dots 7 and 8 are to the left and right of the spacebar, which is below the six main input keys and circle of arrows. This means there’s a good two to three inches your fingers have to cover to input a keyboard sequence like Command Enter, which you do by pushing dot 1 + dot 7 +. Spacebar, releasing, and then pushing either dot 8+ space bar, or dot 1 + dot 5+ spacebar. This is a keyboard short cccommnly used in apps like Whatsapp and Facebook messenger. It’s perfectly doable, but I find it easier to to just find and press the actual send button.
Just Text Input
Regular text (braille) input is one of the best parts of the display. The keys fit the fingers well, and press with minimal effort. You can do most of it without moving your fingers away from these keys.
This part isn’t so nice. I said I wouldn’t go on about the lack of cursor routing keys, but the fact is this absence impacts the process of proofreading something that has been written. With that said, iOS lets you ustomize many commands for a braille display, and so this can be worked around with a little time and patience.
All in All, a Good Device
Over all, the Orbit Reader is a good device. It’s high points for me are the 20 braille cells, and sharpness of the braille. It’s also extremely rrsponsive to screen changes and button presses. It’s low points for me are the laout of some of the buttons, and the noise it makes when the braillle refreshes. Out of all of the displays I’ve owned, this one is extremely loud. It sounds a bit like a fly trapped in a window screen on a summmer evening. This is, however, a worthwhile buy if you use or know some who uses braille.
As a blind person who is a long-time tech user, I can tell you that the software and special equipment I need to be independent is an investment. Sure, I’m saved the expense of a car, auto insurance, and the cost of maintenance and licensing fees, but these costs get replaced with the costs of my screen reader and refreshable braille display. Until recently, a screen reader cost just about as much as the computer I wanted to access, and I had to but upgrades every so often to make sure I could keep accessing new versions of mainstream applications.
With many operating systems including built-in screen readers, it has become more affordable to obtain acccess to computers, so long as you’re the kind of user who can get buy on text-to-speech feedback for the contents displayed on a computer screen. I am not this kind of user, and the cost of a refreshable braille display remains high. The SmartBeetle, the kind of display I owned until recently sold for $1,345, and that was one of the cheapest units, and it now sells for $995. In other words, readers, it’s an investment. Unlike a screen reader that only provides spoken versions of visual elements, the braille display gives me tangible rendenrings of things on the screen. I relied on it to let me check the spelling of people’s names and email addresses, to proofread documents, to privately read communications from friends, family, and coworkers, and engage in other activities where it would not be beneficial to have the contents of my screen spoken. With that said, when a piece of equipment that carries such a huge workload breaks, problems will be had.
Six months ago, the SmartBeetle broke. Specifically, it stopped allowing me to connect to devices via bluetooth, which is essential to it’s functioning. If this were a device that is used by the majority of the population, getting in touch with the company’s technical support team would yield a timely response, and it would not be okay for such communications to go unanswered. But braille displays are not used by a majority of the population, and the SmartBeetle which is manufactured by HIMS Inc. is no exception, and this apparently gives HIMS Inc. the license to have a lax standard of support team responsiveness. I sent several emails, made several phone calls, all of which detailed my problem and got no response.
When I finally did get a response, the first thing that happned was I had to go through all the troubleshooting steps listed in the user guide with the customer service person. This is annoying but standard no matter what, and so I cooperated. The yielded the response that the manufacturer in Korea would need to be contacted to find out what to do. In a company that sells popular devices like computers, I would have been given a support ticket, and this would have allowed me to track the progress of my support request. It also would have, when I reached out, given the next support agent a frame of reference. None of these things happened, there was no follow up from the support department, and I sent several more emails and made more phone calls and left messages that got no response. Meanwhile, all of the activities I described abovee are lessened in quality for me.
Just before this passed thanksgiving, I finally got in touch with a support agent, and it was determined that the bluetooth board had gone out and would need to be replaced. The cost of thee replacement part was $170. Just as a point of reference, you can buy a fairly kickass set of bluetooth headphones for that price. So for the entire repair process, I had to apy $20 to ship the SmartBeetle to the company for repairs, $170 for the bluetooth board, $85 for an hour’s labor, $20 to ship the device back, and $20 to rescue the device from a UPS center when they couldn’t deliver the package to me at my house. This totals $315 for repairs, about a quarter of the original price of $1,345, or a third of the current $995 price for a new SmartBeetle.
Two weeks later, one of the cells in the device stopped functioning. This is kind of like what happens when some of the pixels in your TV screen go out. This time the cost of replacement parts would be $780, and that excludes any labor, shipping, and transportation costs involved. When I told the support agent I had just sent the device in for repairs and paid ovr $300, the response I got was, “Bumber.” It turns out, there is a 90-day warranty, but it only covers the part ttthat was replaced. This means I’m now putting more than the cost of the original unit into fixing thee unit. To any of you car owners, this means the device has been effectively totaled. When I pointed this out, I was encouraged to buy a new unit because it was the better deal, and never mind that this is damage that could have been caused during he repair and shipping process.
If this were an iPhone and if I had gottena customer experience of a quality that compares to Apple, it would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, I have six months of no response, ball-dropping, and a company that seems to feel it’s okay to charge more repairs than a replacement unit. The worst part is HIMS Inc. and companies like it have gotten so used to people having to put up with their antics that they don’t even care that I’m less than pleased with them. I’m posting my experience on all of their dealers’ sites, I’ve hit their Facebook page, will probably be targeting their Google Maps page if the have one, and the only result is catharsis for me. HIMS and companies like need to be taken down a notch. They cannot continue to treat people like this. Even if a limited market means a higher price for products, that doesn’t mean you can treat your customers like total shit.
In this case, I found a replacement device for $449 from a company that supports its products. It’s still more money than I wanted to spend, but it’s better than giving these losers any more money. In short, reader, don’t buy a SmartBeeeetle, don’t by from HIMS Inc. The product doesn’t last, and the customer support is lousy.