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JAWS for Windows, Much More Than a Tool for the Workplace

It was in December of last year when I began to hear more than the usual amount of computer keyboard clicks from the other side of the room. I also heard exclamations such as, "Oh well done Fikey", or, "oh how could you roll in something bad!" I wondered what on earth was going on, and so I asked Lulu what she was doing.

Lulu at this point had quite a lot of time on her hands and wanted something to occupy her. She was looking for a multimedia role-playing game so as to have fun and possibly interact with fellow players. Lulu has a high level of intelligence, so the game should get progressively more challenging and should change on a regular basis with new tasks to be achieved, resulting in her thinking about what each problem was as it arose and how to resolve it. The game should not include any element of combat.

However for some years, Lulu has experienced severe migraines and additional health difficulties. So the game also had to be something that could be played not involving too many sounds or music. She could then just play it when she was able to.

It was on the social media site Twitter that she read about Furry-Paws at www.furry-paws.com. Put very simply, the game allows you to care for (and breed) dogs, while entering them into competitions. The game has its own currency which can be earned. Dogs progress through the game and, as specific levels are reached, varying attention is needed. Starting with one basic kennel on a small piece of land you can work to build the ultimate facility encompassing multiple kennels and training areas along with optional landscaping features to make your property look attractive. There are also rare creatures and items to trade and collect, and the game’s social element means that, by using the chat room, user guilds and Canine Associations, a player could easily make friends or get help if needed.

So, Furry-Paws seemed to meet all of Lulu's requirements while having the added bonus that the game could be suspended periodically if she was unable to play for a few days. Moreover, the game is not like those found within apps relating to "Virtual Pets". While the game is played in real-time, when the dogs have been cared for during the day, the work is done and attention can be given to them the following day.

Over time, Lulu accumulated a large number of dogs, some of which gained the "Best of Breed" status within the entire Furry-Paws community which is large and of course consists predominantly of sighted players. She began to very much enjoy playing the game and caring for her dogs. Of course she mentioned Furry-Paws on Twitter, and we found that some of our friends and followers then began to play, adding to the significant number of visually impaired people who were already playing the game.

The Furry-Paws site is extremely accessible to screen-readers and the standard HTML navigation techniques could be used. However, as the number of dogs grew to 250, (not an unusually large number in Furry-Paws game playing terms), it was obvious that a lot of keystrokes were having to be used. Lulu has limited hand movement, and in addition to experiencing fatigue after pressing upwards of a thousand keystrokes in a gaming session, she was missing out on vital information displayed on the web page which otherwise needed to be located (and navigated to) using the Arrow keys.

To solve these problems, I thought it would be a good idea to put my JAWS scripting skills to good use and help her. I already had a Furry-Paws account. As Lulu is my Fiancee, obviously I took an interest in what she was doing and wanted to share in something that she was obviously enjoying. Actually my Kennel and surrounding area are in no way on the scale of Lulu's, but I am getting there and it is fairly respectable.

I set about creating the JAWS scripts which would provide keystrokes to frequently accessed areas of the site, output spoken alerts and audio cues to denote important events which occur during game play, and set focus to relevant areas of the page depending upon the task being carried out, so that the text could easily be examined more slowly if required.

Over time, the scripts developed with more and more features and keystrokes. Soon, between us the ideas started to flow and we improved the functionality. I think the end result is a program which not only considerably lessens the number of keystrokes to be used, but it also outputs important information which the sighted user would be immediately drawn to when each page loads.

We realised from the outset that we needed to be careful when creating features for the scripts. It would be all too easy for JAWS to "take over", work out solutions to problems with dog care, make decisions based upon what it finds and resolve those difficulties. That completely destroys the point of the game and does not allow the player to think for his or herself.

A Keystroke Help system soon followed. There are quite a lot of keystrokes to remember, but you soon get to know them if you play the game regularly. I decided that the best approach was to divide them into categories with hyperlinks, where activating each link would take you into a different category of keystrokes. Pressing ALT+Left Arrow, (the standard command to move to the previous page within Internet Explorer), would take the user back to the main index. Each keystroke is also hyperlinked, so as you learn the different key combinations which can be pressed, they can be activated through the help system so as to pass them through to the website. This technique should help users while in the initial stages of learning.

It became clear to us that many other JAWS users may well also benefit from, (and enjoy using), this functionality we had added. We began to get quite excited about what the scripts offered and some people were asking if we were going to share them. This we decided to do. I contacted the developer of the site, explained what we were doing and that we would like to release the scripts for use by the public at no cost. She approved the project which we were very pleased about.

In conclusion, I think apart from the obvious benefits of the scripts for Furry-Paws users, there are two important points which should be drawn out. First, many applications even in the workplace are becoming browser-based, perhaps using Microsoft Internet Explorer, and I think what we've arrived at here is a good template for providing spoken alerts and sounds to assist with those kinds of applications. The use of these scripts proves it can be done, saving a good deal of time for the user in the process.

But more importantly, there is a belief (or a preconception) among some people that JAWS is primarily a tool to be used in the workplace. It isn't. It is a screen-reader for whatever a person wants to use it for, and that very much includes having fun and relaxation. Again, these scripts, I hope, demonstrate that.

So here we are. Version 1 of the Furry-Paws scripts can be downloaded from our website and we hope that they may inspire others to play, or indeed assist those who already do. Please activate this link to move to the Furry-Paws script page, from which you can read the full documentation, hear a comprehensive audio demo of the scripts in action together with downloading the scripts themselves.

If you have any comments or suggestions regarding this project, please do Email jaws@hartgen.org and we would love to read your comments. Alternatively, (of course using the Furry-Paws website), you can message either Think ComputerGeek (#1175395) or Eden Louise (#1170116) .

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