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BibleWorks 8 & 9

Review concerning Accessibility for Blind Users

Ray McAllister
September 2011

For the last few weeks I have been evaluating BibleWorks Version 9 concerning its accessibility for the blind. Last year I evaluated BibleWorks 8, and since the two versions are somewhat similar, this review is written to concern both. I am blind myself and hold a PhD in religion, Hebrew Bible major. I can, then, offer well-considered information concerning this software. The following paragraphs concern such.

It must first be noted that I use the screen reader, WindowEyes which is not the only screen reader on the market. Nonetheless, problems faced by one screen reader are often faced by others. The things that work well with one often work with others.

My evaluation is in three main parts. First, BibleWorks (BW for short), is evaluated concerning general matters. This includes installation issues as well as general use concerns. Then, BW is evaluated with reference to its accessibility for a lay audience. Finally, issues more relevant to blind scholars and clergy are considered. In general, I found BW extremely accessible with some minor issues, most of which can be resolved with little or no software revision.

General Analysis

Installation was fairly easy. My wife had to help me some, but she has had to help me install many programs. I had found it amusing, though, that once I installed BW 8, last year, one of the first utilities available was the electronic user's manual, explaining how to install the program. Sighted people would just look at the print manual as my wife did for counsel during installation. This year, BW sent me the first part of the manual for version 9, by E-mail, complete with instructions on how to upgrade from version 8. The install of version 9 was a lot smoother. I only needed my wife to type in the serial number for BW 9. I'd recommend, then, simply, offering to e-mail to a blind purchaser the manual, or, at least, the first few chapters. If the serial number could be sent by e-mail when a phone purchase is done, that would be helpful, too, since I had to have my wife read that. But, these are really quite minor issues in the long run, since people usually only install programs once, maybe twice if there is a computer failure.

The software works excellently with screen readers. I actually felt, for a time, like a child exploring a new, very large house. There were so many exciting things to explore and discover, like new rooms in a mansion.

In BW there are many keyboard shortcuts and logical menu arrangements whose headings read easily with text-to-speech software. The command line search is especially helpful. Yes, I have to memorize a list of search commands, but the blind are accustomed to memorizing entire walking routes through cities. It's a lot easier just learning where to put a period or apostrophe in a search command than to try to navigate graphical search systems. Since the commands can be revised and edited, one may start with a simple search and build.

Passages read very well in the browse window, sometimes almost as well as in a regular word processor. Sometimes if left-over search material still resides on the screen, one must clear all tabs and restore all tabs. It would be helpful if there was a quick keyboard shortcut for this action, since one must otherwise use the mouse to click on something on the screen.

One of the most useful features is the option to export text, entire Bibles even, into other formats. Sighted people take for granted the ability to just pick up a book and read it. The blind, though, must find books in accessible formats. Bibles, like the entire NASB, or the entire Greek New Testament can be exported into a number of formats, such discussed later. This means that one can move these files onto smaller, more portable computers for reading in other environments, or, so they can be browsed easier with Braille displays.

I’d also like to note that the manual in the program is highly accessible, readable by just moving the cursor around with the arrow keys. There’s even a section set aside specifically for shortcuts. This means that one must just spend a little time in the manual to learn what is needed.

Lay Use Analysis

BW is very accessible to those using it for lay purposes. Strong's numbers are easy to access and search by, with however complicated a search method is needed. Parallel Bibles in a number of modern languages, many English, can be displayed, and with the touch of a key, one can advance from one verse to the next. Using the Resource Window, words can even be looked up, and the original language roots are spelled out in pronounceable Roman letters that screen readers can, at least, make an educated guess at how to say. I was even able to copy to the clip board Bibles in Asian languages (which I don't know) so I could print verses for Asian foreigners to read during a small worship service.

Obviously the maps are not accessible, and I have no idea how one would make them such on a computer. I would not expect such to be accessible. I was able to locate them, though, so I could direct a sighted person to them. So I will not hold this against anyone.

Scholarly Use Analysis

BW is highly accessible for scholarly use, though I wouldn't quite say perfectly accessible. Most of the problems, though, can be worked around without great trouble.

One tool that works really well for scholars is the command line search. I can build and edit searches easily, once I know the instructions, which are clearly listed and accessible in the manual. There is even an Aramaic grammar with Unicode characters used for the Aramaic. Unicode is recognized by WindowEyes 7, and I hear JAWS screen reader can work with this format.

The main problems center around the original language texts. BW does not use Unicode for these on the main browse window. I'm not sure the technical term, but it appears a form of re-assigned ascii characters is used, consistent with the BW fonts for word processors. A is alef or alpha, B is bet or beta, e is tzere or epsilon. Since symbols are stacked, overtyped, as an alef with a petach, they don't always show up well on screen readers. What seems to happen is that the screen reader reads the Hebrew as unpointed and the Greek as unaccented. A screen reader doesn't actually read the Greek and Hebrew, but the Roman type-in character for the font. It is best, then, if blind, and planning to read off the screen, to just use the keyboard commands to hide vowels, accents, and breathers.

This is not totally damning, though, for BW, in fact, hardly damning at all. There are many ways to work around this. First, it must be noted that Greek and Hebrew were originally written without those over-typed marks. It is possible with some experience and a basic knowledge of the English of a verse (which parallel Bible browse mode gives) to figure out what the words should be. Hebrew, of course, must be read right to left, letter by letter, but WindowEyes allows the mouse pointer to do that well whenever the cursor keys don't work perfectly.

One may also get digital Braille Hebrew and Greek Bible files from various online charities that help the blind. These files may be read with a Braille display in a separate window, and then one may jump into BW briefly, and use the screen reader to search the screen for the right unaccented form. I've done searches this way, and it works quite well.

BW also allows material to be exported in other accessible formats. One can use the pop-up copy window to choose, by typing in, verses or chapters to place on the clip board. When these verses are pasted, they appear in Unicode. These verses could be pasted into MS Word, the Hebrew-to-Braille transliterator at Jewish Braille Institute's web site, or any other useful program. Then, one can follow along in whatever format desired.

One may also use the export option from the Tools menu to export whole verses, passages, or entire Bibles into a rather obscure but highly useful format known as CCAT. The Center for Computer Analysis of Texts, (CCAT, for short) has used this ascii-based system for encoding Biblical language materials since the old glory days of Dos. The schemes used are slightly different and slightly less space efficient than Braille systems, but the letters easily show up on Braille displays set to read computer Braille. Morphology files even export with the original language material transliterated but the English coding unchanged. This is extremely handy.

I've never even thought of looking for the Syriac New Testament in an accessible format. I've never really studied Syriac, but I have taken Hebrew and Aramaic, and with the PHA Peshitta file which has Hebrew letters with accents, I can pronounce the material fairly well.

The small window that shows parsing right under the cursor does not seem to show up on screen readers. But this is no problem. One need only open the resource window with a couple quick key strokes, and it's all right there. One may then use the mouse or cursor to choose what word one wishes to look up. The new feature in version 9 where lexical entries for words show up beneath the text of the Hebrew morphology is quite handy.

Lexicon entries may either be read by decoding the ascii type-in code or by copying and pasting them into MS Word and reading the Unicode letters. It's really not too impractical learning the type-in codes for Greek and Hebrew since any time one would search for a word, it's those letters that would be used.

The grammars don't seem to convert to Unicode when copying them to MS Word. The Aramaic grammar is already in Unicode, but the other ones just need to be read by decoding the type-in schemes. It's actually not that difficult to do that.

This is where I would make some suggestions. First, and this one is the easy suggestion, make the charts for the font codes more accessible. The keyboard layout charts are very difficult for screen readers to figure out. I basically figured out the system by copying Genesis and Matthew into Text format, not CCAT, and compared between CCAT documents I had to determine which letters to use. Since segol is a different symbol depending on which letter it points, I had to develop exception clauses to allow for that. Usually it is gimmel, waw, zain, yod, and non, that need the alternate vowel symbols for typing. The GUZIN, letters, as I call them. It would be good if there were a simple chart, as appears in brief below, explaining this. Such could just be e-mailed to blind users.

a alef
A holem waw
b Bet
B Bet with dagesh
petach on GWZYN letters.

Greek would be written out the same way. One needs just a simple chart like that without all the fancy visual displays.

After mentioning this to BW, they said they’re willing to provide such a table which I have set up. One may ask BW for such.

BW also has macros one can install on MS Word 2003 which convert BW Greek and Hebrew font into Unicode. The instructions for how to access these should be made available to the blind along with the font code charts so the blind can convert BW text into more screen-reader-friendly characters.

In addition, BW does need to finish going Unicode to achieve absolute accessibility. I can tell that BW is moving in the right direction, but BW needs to have versions of the Greek and Hebrew, with all tags for morphology and lexical work, available in Unicode. This way, the newer screen readers would be more equipped to read the text.

Another area that needs improvement is the format of the Greek manuscripts, like Vaticanus. These are new in BW 9. One must download all seven or eight gb of photographs in order to access the transcriptions. Only the transcriptions are accessible to a blind person. This, then, asks a blind person to fill, maybe, 10% of a hard drive with useless material. BW did send me instructions on how to remove the picture files from the manuscript folders, which I did over several minutes, so I now have that extra hard drive space, back. I wish there were a way to just install the transcriptions without the pictures.

I did check the graphical search engine, and I don't see it working well with screen readers, but, as with the maps, I wouldn't expect that it would. The command line offers enough power for my needs. As long as the command line is present, I'm satisfied.


Finally, one must ask if BW9 is worth the $359. I would say, definitely, yes. I paid $210 for a less sophisticated Bible program in Dos in the 1990s that didn't do a fifth of what BW does and didn't have a fifth of the materials BW has. It may or may not be worth it for a blind person to spend the $159 to upgrade from version 8 unless he/she plans to make heavy use of the Greek manuscripts or the lexical work in the Hebrew morphology spaces. Both versions are good, though. If anything, a blind person can enjoy exporting whatever he/she wants to text to keep even in the event that after operating systems change, BW is no longer compatible. Somehow, though, I see BW sticking around for a while. They have a good product. The changes I recommend, I only recommend because BW is already so accessible. If the main menus didn't work well, I wouldn't bother suggesting improving Greek and Hebrew displays. So, I think I can give BW “two thumbs up,” and say to just keep up the good work. Don't get rid of the already accessible attributes like keyboard short cuts and the command line, and, especially the export with CCAT option. God will continue to bless this ministry as He has in the past

Ray McAllister has a Ph.D. in religion and was a Hebrew Bible major.


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