Software Defined Receivers (SDRs) for the visually impaired listener

Spectrum Display 31 Meters on the WinRadio Excalibur

At the 2015 Winter SWL Fest, I co-hosting a forum on Software-Defined Radios.  Afterwards, a radio friend–who happens to be visually impaired–approached me to ask:

“What is the best SDR for those who are blind or visually impaired?”

I’d never been asked the question before, and replied that I’d have to do a little research. In truth, I suspected that research would turn up very little that was useful:  after all, SDRs require a lot of pointing and clicking, and some of the interfaces are rather complicated. Spectrum and waterfalls displays, often at the heart of the SDR app, are visual displays.

But I kept thinking of my friend’s question. Upon my return, I set out to do a little research and possibly pose the question here on the SWLing Post.  Then assistance stepped in…in the form of medium wave DXer Tore Johnny Bråtveit.

If Mr. Bråtveit’s name sounds familiar, that would be because I recently posted a link to an Oregon Public Broadcasting interview with him. In the interview, he mentioned that he uses SDRs to chase MW DX, and that he is visually impaired.

I reached out to Mr. Bråtveit via his website and asked for any advice he could give about SDRs for those who are blind or visually impaired.  His enlightening response:

“In the interview I mentioned screen reader software and the need to find SDR software that plays well along with such screen reader software. For those visually impaired who have some eyesight, this aspect may not apply, since many of them are well helped by a screen magnifier software package.

For those without eyesight at all, or with so little left of the eyesight that they cannot make practical use of the screen, there are these screen reader software packages. They all do the same, but they solve the job in a somewhat different way and are good at different tasks.

I began using SDRs back in 2007. First I used some [RFspace] SDR-IQs for a few years, until I purchased a Winradio G31DDC in 2010. The user experience with Winradio was so good that I have stayed with those radios since then, using both G31DDC and G33DDC receivers at my remote listening places.

I think I can say that all the software packages delivered with SDRs have issues and challenges when it comes to using them along with a screen reader. The worst example of unusable native software I have seen so far, is the software package delivered with the [Microtelecom] Perseus. I had a thought purchasing one some years ago and make some scripts for my screen reader JAWS to see if I could make the Perseus possible to use effectively, but I dropped the idea at that time in favor of Winradio.

The SpectraVue software delivered with SDR-IQ was usable, but I had to script it quite extensively, especially to be able to use the timeline when playing back recordings. Also the frequency selector was a bit tricky, so I had to assign some hotkey combinations to it. Otherwise it worked fine.

The Winradio software for the G3x series works quite fine right out of the box. They have apparently thought [through] keyboard operation, and there are shortcuts for almost everything. Such shortcut keys are necessary, as navigating the program interface with a screen reader can be a bit too complicated, especially for those only using speech output from the screen reader to access the screen content.

I personally am living in a country where we have good access to refreshable Braille displays, which gives me the opportunity to turn off the speech entirely if I want and only use Braille output. This way I can navigate the program interface quite effectively to understand how things are laid out.

The only real issues I have had with Winradio software, is:

1. Changing shortcut keys:
Normally, the Tab key is used to move between elements on a screen, so it would be natural to think that pressing the Tab key will bring me to the next shortcut key definition. Not in Winradio. Tab can be defined as a shortcut key itself, so trying to navigate the shortcut keys dialog with that key gives you a number of options, all connected to the Tab key. My way around this was to navigate with the Braille display until I found the shortcut key definition I wanted to change, focus on it by pressing a cursor routing key in that position and changing the definition. Then navigate further down to the OK button and activate it.

2. The timeline:
The timeline used when playing back recordings can be hard to locate when using a screen reader, and even more difficult to work with, since when you press a cursor routing key on the Braille display to simulate a mouse click on it, the focus often moves to somewhere else on the screen. Then you have to work hard to locate back to that timeline again. My solution here was to script my screen reader with a hotspot at the timeline with a shortcut key assigned to it, so that I could move focus back there by pressing a key.

Among the third-party software packages developed for SDRs, I have found few that I can recommend. The only one I can think of, is HDSDR. Especially in the current version from November 2013, there are a number of useful shortcut keys, and the program seem to work very well. I have used it a bit with an AFEDRI SDR I have, and have also used it to play back older SDR-IQ recordings.

So, if nothing else works, Iwould say that HDSDR is the solution, since it is both easy to use and have support for a number of receivers. And it is free, as you certainly know.

[…]Please write back if I can help you any further”

Brilliant!  What a treasure trove of information for our visually-impaired SDR listeners and operators.  Thanks so much, Mr. Bråtveit, and please keep in touch with us here at the SWLing Post.  73s!

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4 thoughts on “Software Defined Receivers (SDRs) for the visually impaired listener

  1. Brian Gage

    I’m totally blind and use a Kenwood TS590SG with a VGS1 voice module installed. It was $70. extra and reads almost everything the display shows. Frequency, power, SWR, ALC, and the radio tunes from VLF to 6 metres, only transmitting on the ham bands. Apparently, the IC7300 comes with the voice-over installed and can be turned on as an option. Both are expensive, but a step in the right direction.

  2. Brandon Hennis

    Here’s what I’m trying to find, more accessible softwares.
    HDSDR has one serious drawback and that is you can’t change the rf gain. Changing the rf gain is very critical if you want a way to quickly improove your signals.
    If anyone uses sdr sharp and is blind and needs help they can contact me via email at [email protected]

  3. Rod Wallberg

    Here is a reply I made to the Tecsun PL-880 group where there is a discussion about visually impaired short wave listeners….

    “At one time an AM, FM receiver was made with visually impaired people in mind, this was quite a while back and perhaps in the mid to late 1960s.
    As for short wave receivers there seems to be even less available. I would think it is possible to add Braille dots to the keys and locations next to the knobs.
    Certain interactions of a receiver are rather impossible for those who are visually impaired, items like frequency readout in digital numbers, menu settings, memory locations and signal strengths.
    Granted those who cannot see well or not at all are very resourceful and have work arounds for many of these impediments.
    I have a repair customer who owns a SONY ICF-2010 who is totally blind. He contacted me for a repair of his radio as it was doing nothing but static. I suggested, before sending the radio, to check the AA batteries as they may be almost depleted and there may be a possibility of corrosion or breakage of the plastic post that holds the positive battery terminal. Turns out the batteries were out of energy and it was a simple addition of new batteries. He repaired that problem himself!
    That alone was very neat but I wondered how he can use the receive as it does not have tactile feedback of usage let along frequency display!
    There is a nice discussion on a WEB site, here is the link….

    This discussion is about software defined radios and mating screen reading software that can be used with SDR radios. When it comes to conventional digital radios like the Tecsuns and SONYs, the settings and frequency readouts are very much a visual thing.
    Perhaps there could be a designed a micro-processor that can read the frequency display and convert it to voice or even Morse Code. Micro-processors such as the Raspberry Pi and Ardurino can be programed in such a way.
    I am a amateur radio operator and repair electronics as a hobby and some SONYs I repairs to keep my hobby alive along with other SWLs.
    In 2005 I bought and built a kit transceiver that was designed by Steve Webber, his amateur radio call sign is KD1JV and he has designed several kits that are QRP or low power. The kit he offered in 2005 was the ATS-3 or in full, the Appalachian Trails Sprint III.
    The kit is a rather small the board will fit into an Altoids tin when completed, it is the recommended case! It is a low power of about 3 Watts Morse Code. It is mostly surface mount components or SMD and it takes a degree of skill to build it but I managed just fine.
    The kit radio when built has no frequency readout in either digital format or log scale with pointer or analog. The design is around a DDS circuit in full it is a Direct Digital Synthesizer and is controlled by a programmable Atmel micro-processor. The neatness about this transceiver is that it can receiver short wave frequencies out side of the amateur bands even though it is designed to be a HAM band only transceiver.
    Here is the best part! The transceiver is tuned by pressing a mode button and entering the frequency by using the keyer! One can confirm the entry by pressing the button and the radio will announce the frequency in Morse Code! I believe this design could very well lend it self to a receiver or transceiver for visually impared and cold be annunciated in voice with the correct software.”

    I am certain that this is a start of a design for a short wave receiver or most any electronic device. I know there are companies making alarm clocks with radio that are for those that are visually impaired, they even make simplified radios for those who suffer from dementia.

    73 Rod KB8DNS


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