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Monday, February 20, 2006

Who Should be Responsible for Accessibility?

Last week, I had an excellent conversation with a colleague who is also the blind CEO of a really innovative AT company about a whole lot of different topics.  One major issue came up, an issue that has been discussed and debated for years and has vocal supporters with valid arguments on both sides.  Namely, it is the question of who should be responsible for delivering accessible technology to computer users with disabilities.  As usual, I will use screen readers for my examples as they are the AT I use most often and know the most about.  I believe, however, that the arguments on this topic are apropos to people with other disabilities as well.

As regular readers of Blind Confidential know, Ted Henter has mentored me in the access technology field and that he and I have maintained a good friendship for many years.  Ted’s notorious 1995 speech at the NFB conference caused debate on this subject to explode for a while but, recently it has fallen fairly quiet.  Ted explained that the appropriate stewards of screen readers in specific and access technology in general must be the highly focused AT companies as no larger, highly diverse technology company would do more than the minimum mandated by regulations and that innovation would stop as screen readers will never represent a large enough profit center for gigantic OS vendors.  Ted asked us whether we should trust Henter-Joyce or Microsoft to deliver the best solutions for blind people.

I generally agree with Ted and feel that AT companies like HJ/Freedom Scientific and AI Squared have led the world of technology for people with vision impairments with many innovations over many years.  I also believe that newer players like ViewPlus, Serotek and Code Factory have picked up the pace of innovation as smaller companies often do in all kinds of markets.

To add to the successes of the AT companies, one can point to the relative failures of the mainstream operating system companies’ attempts at their own accessible solutions.  Narrator, from Microsoft, doesn’t even claim to be a screen reader but, for what it does do, can be very useful when programs like JAWS and Window-Eyes fail or during OS installations, when screen readers cannot run.  Narrator helps but, quite clearly, cannot serve as a total solution for a user with a vision impairment.  

The gnopernicus project, promised by Sun Microsystems for years as the screen reader to beat all for the gnome desktop on GNU/Linux boxes died on the vine even with the financial support of Sun and the programming skills of the guys at Baum, a German AT company.  To their credit, Sun pushes forward with the gnome accessibility layer and its terrific API and helps in the development of Orca, a newer screen reader for the gnome desktop.  I wonder, though, if the open source model has the critical mass of AT hackers available to maintain a fully featured screen reader and to ensure that applications comply with the accessibility standards designed for the gnome desktop.  Years ago, Richard Stallman hypothesized and since then some scholarly publications have demonstrated statistically that the open source model will provide greater quality due to the millions of programmers who can view the source and fix the problems.  I don’t doubt the statistical argument for widely used programs like the OS, the web browser, emacs, compilers, networking services, etc.  I do, however, question if there are enough volunteers throughout the Diaspora who want to maintain and add innovative features to open source AT products to serve a small niche of users.

Major open source accessibility efforts, like adding the use of the API to Open Office and the Firefox accessibility effort, required substantial corporate support.  In the first case, Sun Microsystems funded the Open Office accessibility entirely and its programmers did virtually all of the work.  At first, AOL took on the Firefox accessibility effort but, when they completed their legal settlement with Microsoft which required them to use MS Internet tools for quite a few years to come they dropped the project like a hot potato.  Fortunately, IBM picked up the Firefox project and Aaron Leventhal proved his dedication to the effort by nearly performing all of the accessibility single handed at the IBM Cambridge Research Center.

The efforts by Sun and IBM stand out as examples of excellent corporate responsibility as do many efforts by Microsoft in making their professional applications as compatible as possible with available access technology products.  One big difference, though, is that Microsoft has delivered accessible applications for a lot of years now and the gnome accessibility effort still provides promise for the future but little that can be used today.  I commend my friends at Sun for their efforts and, as I stated in a recent post, I’m excited to start working with their really cool new API but, for now, to do my job, its JAWS, Windows and Microsoft applications.

Continuing with the open source thoughts, I often ask why the companies that sells the various flavors of GNU/Linux distributions fail to do anything to help with the accessibility cause.  A recent look at the Red Hat web site finds under “accessibility” a bunch of pointers to access technology tool web sites maintained by volunteers and a lot about how to fill out a VPAT so you can claim that your Red Hat systems pass muster with federal government buyers.  Red Hat seems happy to applaud the work contributed by Sun, IBM and lone hackers working on their own time and money but seems unwilling to make any contribution of its own.  I’m not familiar enough with other GNU/Linux distributions but talking to friends who hack AT into open source operating environments, the others don’t seem to be participating either.

Returning to vendors of proprietary software, Apple Computer claims accessibility with the screen reader it introduced with the latest OSX distribution.  If access to less than 10% of the programs and features thereof that ship with your computer and even less access when the entire population of Macintosh programs are factored into the equation is considered to be accessible, I guess these newer Macintoshes can claim accessibility, albeit far less than what Narrator, the little utility from Microsoft can do.

So, we cannot call the track record of mainstream OS vendors vis a vis accessibility a grand success.  In my opinion, Microsoft has provided the best solutions we have today and Sun Microsystems with its gnome accessibility effort looks like it will prove a formidable competitor when, at some point in the future, it supports enough applications to warrant the label of accessible.

Everything I’ve written so far, though, has detailed the recent history of mainstream companies and their AT efforts.  I’ve hardly touched upon the access technology vendors themselves and the stagnation that seems to dominate their sector.

Regular readers of Blind Confidential (or those who read the archives) can see where I applaud AT companies for making cool innovations and where I fault them for ignoring concepts that exist today but don’t make it into screen readers that most people with vision impairments use today.

I wonder if the lack of innovation by the access technology companies may also result from not having the critical mass to move the art forward quickly enough.  As I suggested above, their may not be enough volunteers to make open source AT successful and the combined number of dollars that screen reader vendors can put into research may not amount to enough money to afford to get their products to the next generation.

So, as often is the case, we consumers are left in the middle.  

We should also ask the question, why should people with vision impairments pay so much extra (often up to $1100 for a speech only screen reader) to use the same features that our sighted colleagues get for the price of the OS and the applications?  Also, why does this extra price we must pay just because we fall into the class of people with vision impairments often provide only access to a subset of features of these same applications?

These questions seem to point to a solution by the OS vendors as they can include their screen readers as features of the operating system and require that applications to get the logo certification they sell comply with the accessibility guidelines for the OS.  Thus, when a software or hardware product is sent off to the independent test laboratories, accessibility testing gets included in the procedure and the vendor is refused the stamp of approval if they fail.

The certification and logo processes would, of course, only work for Apple and Microsoft as the open source solutions would not have an official body to provide a stamp of approval.  This would also force Apple and Microsoft to test their own applications against accessibility standards which might slow things down for sale to the mainstream consumers and, therefore, slow sales and progress in general.

Where does this leave us?  We have OS vendors with the financial wherewithal but likely not the will to build a wholly accessible environment right out of the box.  We have AT companies who need to deal with their own financial goals and likely do not have the cash to burn on making too many innovations and we have an open source accessibility movement that depends upon financial assistance from big corporations and lone hackers who volunteer their time.  Is this anyway to build a railroad to an accessible future?

Does anyone have a clear answer to these questions?

2 Comments:

Anonymous Chris Westbrook said...

I think you're leaving out an aspect of the equation that needs to be more widely considered. It is my view that consumer organizations of the blind such as NFB and ACB in the United States need to play a more active role in this space. What that means I'm not sure, but it could take the form of partnering with assistive technology companies or helping with research and development. I think we're starting to see some possibilities with NFB in their research and training center in Baltimore, but it remains to be seen what that place will actually do. Unfortunately, aCB has been and will probably continue to be a social club that every once in a while wines about needing more laws which may or may not help. I think NFB's leadership is awakening to the fact that acessibility could take a step backward without action. Unfortunately, at least in today's political climate and probably far into the future, it is unrealistic to expect government to help us. I think government aid in the form of state agencies will be cut back considerably in the coming years, and it may be up to organizations like NFB and other private organizations to fill the gap. It doesn't sound exciting, but it could be reality.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Jake Joehl said...

First off, I have to thank Chris H for replying to my email so quickly. I think something was wrong with my keyboard because I definitely knew the answer to my question but just hit Send a bit too soon. I have to partially take issue with the other comment on this entry. While it is true that the two blindness organizations must take partial responsibility for accessibility, I feel that there is, and has been, a strong philosophical bias here. Perhaps I didn't say that exactly right, but it just seems to me that a lot of visually-impaired and blind people themselves complain bitterly about certain accessibility issues, namely descriptive narration on TV programs and in movies, and environmental issues such as detectable warning strips and audible pedestrian signals. To me this complaining is a huge waste of time, simply because not all blind and visually-impaired people are the same and what works great for someone may not work at all for someone else. But I suppose we can get into a big philosophical debate about blindness another time, and I won't mention the group that complains about all these accessibility issues, because I think by now it is very clear.

Having said all that, I do think that assistive technology companies should play a big role in accessibility of their respective products. If AT companies need to collaborate with mainstream technology companies in order to achieve maximum accessibility, then so be it. I for one have been very pleased with the work that Henter-Joyce/Freedom Scientific has done with Microsoft to ensure maximum accessibility. I have been a JAWS user since the early days of the screen reader, and I am now running the public beta of version 7.1. I still marvel at how wonderful JAWS is, and just how feature-rich it has become. I have no doubt this trend will continue as new features are added to JAWS. The same seems to be true with Window-Eyes, but I am much more familiar with JAWS. I've never used Hal/Supernova or Freedom Box before. One thing which I would like to see in screen readers of the future is support for Safe Mode. I have gotten myself into this predicament a few times before. The most recent of these times was with the Dell Dimension that I have now. A fully-sighted tech had to come over, and he broke the ever-so-wonderful news that my bios had been screwed up. I have a hunch as to what might've caused this.

5:00 PM  

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