Eight Questions For Devin Prater

Welcome to another edition of Eight Questions For …, where I pick the brains of plain text enthusiasts from around the world and around the web.

This time around, I chat with Devin Prater. Devin emailed me and shared his perspective on using plain text. To be honest, it’s a perspective I’ve never consider. Why? Devin’s blind, and relies on use screen readers to use computers and mobile devices. Using plain text dovetails nicely both in his daily life and in his work as a Technical Assistant in the Assistive Technology department of E.H. Gentry (the adult education facility of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind).

Let’s hear from Devin:

When did you start using plain text?

I started using plain text around a year ago. In a sense, I’ve always been reading plain text, because traditional screen readers do not show font information and styles, not even italics or bold, in any meaningful way. They can be made to speak italics on like this italics off, but that just adds more syllables to what we must wait to hurry up and listen to.

Recently, Microsoft has added a mode into its Narrator screen reader which speaks italics, bold, underline and such using different voice pitches, speeds, and volumes, but they don’t tell which one means which formatting, and using volume can be rather jarring.

Emacspeak uses this method too, and along with the actual formatting symbols, like asterisks for bold, dashes as list markers and so on, a blind person can easily create correctly formatted material.

Why did you start using plain text?

As a technical assistant, I teach students how to use screen readers with Windows, Mac, iOS, and, if the student has such a device, Android. More often, though, you’ll find me working on course material.

Around a year ago, while I was still an intern, I found a few problems in our Office courses — some grammatical, some dealing with outdated keyboard commands, and some dealing with concepts limited to only one screen reader. Yes, on Windows, there are three, at varying prices.

Our courses are created and hosted on a Moodle server, so we have quite a few text editors available to use. I started with the What You See is What You Get editor, making small changes. Eventually though, I learned a little HTML, and started working in that. Yes, it was hard and took a long time.

While doing so, though, I learned that there were enough non-breaking spaces to fill outer space, and that the middle dot (·), is the most awful list marker there is, and replacing that with <li> will not give the tidy HTML cleaner the clue that you want that to be a list with proper syntax.

So, I turned to Markdown first. It was a great tool, and still is, now that I know how to do those definition lists in the PHP-Extra dialect. In fact, that and a few other things, like the <aside> HTML element, is why I then moved on to Org mode, with its easy aside syntax.

I use, and love Org mode, except for the fact that if you have an image on the web, it’d better have an image file name extension, or it’ll just be a link. I also now just use Pandoc to convert Org to Markdown or HTML, because the Org Markdown exporter doesn’t know about PHP-Extra definition lists — it just bolds the term.

What do you use plain text for?

I use plain text for just about everything. I write my course material in it, I write my journal in it, and I even am writing fan fiction in it.

What keeps you using plain text?

For me, it is simplicity. I love being able to have a reliable set of formatting tools which will, firstly, look the same across all devices and editors, and the fact that it will look good to sighted people who may read it when exported.

Also, the fact that I can know when italics, bold, underlining, and headings begin and end italics on without italics off hearing verbose screen reader output, gives me, I believe, an edge over blind writers who use Word, LibreOffice, Google Docs, and yes, even Pages, and who must ask sighted people if the formatting is correct. Since I write the formatting, I know how it’ll turn out.

Another point is that, surprisingly and ironically, most word processors do not have straightforward styles to handle things like definition lists, <aside> elements, and probably a lot more, which HTML, and thus Markdown, will show just fine. Yes, I’ve tried Word, Open Document Format, and even opening the two in Pages.

While still on word processors, the styles they have are ephemeral. What I mean is that while Pages has a few paragraph styles, only headings the last time I checked, you must create styles like block quotes, asides, and everything else. And, if one were to create a style called cat, with 40 point font, aligned right, and italicized, there it will be, with no reason of being to the program and reader. In fact, if a screen reader user read it, they’d just hear style cat or something to that effect.

With HTML, Markdown, Org-mode, and other plain text markup languages, however, document semantics mean things. A screen reader user can be assured that a heading is what it says. With Pages, a style called brown upside down heading can be set to any formatting the style creator wants. Can you tell that formatting is important to me? It is, and I expect order from it, not the warm fuzzy customizability of Pages and other word processors.

Do you use any markup or formatting languages? If so, which ones and why?

I use:

Works everywhere, but has many competing dialects. Everything should use Pandoc Markdown, in my opinion.
Allows for great document structure, and one can export only one subtree, good for publishing only the chapter you just finished to Archive Of Our Own, which takes either plain text or HTML.
My first markup language, I use it if Markdown just won’t cut it. Yes, the aside element.

I use them, as I said earlier, because they help me so much with keeping up with my formatting, they make good, accessible documents which even look okay to sighted people, and there aren’t any loose styles to worry about, just text. So, italics and bold can be deleted by simply deleting their characters, and headings can be made more or less important with just an adding or deleting of an asterisk or a hash (shift + 3).

What are your favourite plain text tools or applications?

My text editor of choice.
Makes Emacs accessible to blind users.
Converts between formats.
Helps me to not use cliches like a sneaking suspicion.
Spell checker used in Emacs.

Is there one tool that you can't do without?

Well, I could be cheesy and say my screen reader, because without it, I’d be unable to use the computer, although that is literally the tool I cannot do without. For me, though, it’s Emacspeak. I talked about it a little before, but it really makes using Emacs enjoyable.

While other screen readers yap yap yap about everything, Emacspeak has sounds which play for events, like a word being misspelled, a new thing opening, a yes/no prompt appearing, the minibuffer being displayed, and even when Emacspeak has started up successfully. Yes, some screen readers, like Voiceover, have some sounds, but the screen reader doesn’t know what an app is doing, other than general opening a dialog or moving to a new screen sort of stuff.

Yes, VoiceOver hooks into the operating system, but relies on API’s to tell it what’s going on. Emacspeak can look into the plain text nature of Emacs, and grasp meaning from it, and not just what an API might know. Emacspeak uses Emacs to know what a mode is doing, so it can not only speak brief, relevant messages about what is going on, but also play sounds when needed.

Now, I don’t mean that I want a sound for every pixel change that happens in an operating system, but gosh I’d love it if animations, program actions, things like that made short, high quality sounds to make computing enjoyable for blind people like me.

It really speeds up interaction, because short, distinct sounds are, well, shorter than a text description. There just only needs to be a way to find out what each sound means, and I’ll be off.

Is there anything you can't do with plain text?

I can’t do email in it. Well, if Emacs’ email readers were as easy to set up, and, ironically, as accessible as Apple’s Mail app on the Mac, I’d love using that. But, having to enter server information for email clients, and probably turn on modes to allow less secure programs access to my mail, make it pretty difficult to even want to email in plain text, by which I mean read an email thread, and reply in formatted plain text below it.

Gaming in plain text is also rather hard, depending on the game. Online games, like MUDs, are really fun, unless the combat is very fast, and things can just happen while I’m still reading the room description, and I don’t find out until five seconds later because screen readers read from top to bottom, left to right. I know, many blind people will shout but ma sound packs! but that’s not plain text, now is it? Playing interactive fiction is easier, because things happen one round at a time, but there hasn’t been much development of programs to play these games in, besides a little from Frontz.

You can follow Devin on Twitter. If you’re interested in having Devin review your site for accessibility, visit PD/Go. If you’d like to learn more about what Devin and his colleagues do at the Assistive Technology Department, see the E. H. Gentry Blind Services page.