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Saturday, September 08, 2007

On Comments

Most of the post I wrote yesterday contained corrections to the item I
had written the previous day. I apologized to Joe Clark and to the
author of the post I had quoted the day before for crediting the wrong
person for writing the terrific article that started this thread.
Nonetheless, Joe Clark felt it necessary to post a comment attacking
me and the work I've done in the past.

I do not know Mike Davies and when I looked around the Isolani web
page (link in yesterday's post) before writing, I didn't see a name
anywhere. I checked a number of links on the page including the the
one labeled "Contact" and found no reference to an individual. Thus,
I wrote the piece with a reference to the web site as, anyone who
reads BC with any regularity knows that it tends to come off the top
of my head and that I don't spend a lot of time doing research for
these posts as I need to spend my time doing the research for which I
am paid.

Next, Joe Clark accused me of not knowing how to put a link in my blog
post. He wrote this after I had sent him a private email in which I
described the process I use to write BC while on the road and needing
to use web mail for anything I wish to send. Specifically, I write
the articles in Microsoft Word, as I do when I am at home, the major
difference being that when at home, I use the Word "Send" feature to
email the post to blogger which I cannot do here. So, after spell
checking, I did a select all, copy and then paste the entire item into
the text editor google provides for making blog posts. In the MS Word
version of the post, I had links to Jeff Bishop's Desert Skies blog
and to the Isolani article as well. What I didn't know was that the
links would get stripped out in the copy and paste and that they
wouldn't appear in the blog post. So, go ahead, crucify me, I was
using a technique with which I was unfamiliar and made a boo boo.

Next, Mr. Clark states, "You're one of the managers responsible for
inflicting Jaws on an unsuspecting blind public…" I am quite proud of
the work I did on JAWS for the six years in which I worked for HJ/FS.
I cannot recall the name of the Canadian researcher who published a
web accessibility scorecard comparing screen readers for a number of
consecutive years at CSUN. In the first year, the current version of
JAWS came in a close second place to IBM Home Page Reader and in
subsequent years, JAWS and HPR were either tied or JAWS held the top
position. At FS, while I had any influence, we worked hard to come as
close to the user agent guidelines as we could. It's true that we
never reached a perfect score but JAWS came substantially closer than
any other general purpose screen reader and any web accessibility
expert should have known this little fact.

Finally, Joe Clark says, "I reiterate: You are always eager to put
words in my mouth." I wish he would provide a reference to anything I
said that attributed statements to him that either he didn't make or
for which I did not post a correction. When I accidentally attributed
the item Mike Davies wrote to Mr. Clark, I did so with glowing
commentary about the article so, quite obviously, I had not intended
any malice toward Mr. Clark. And, after receiving more of his anger,
I wrote a correction and even included a link to the page he uses to
raise money for his research, clearly not something an antagonist
would do but Joe Clark simply cannot accept that I am not an enemy and
that while we might really dislike each other, we are on the same team
and both are trying in our own way to promote accessibility on the web
and elsewhere.

-- End


Anonymous Will Pearson said...

I'm going to be contraversial and say that I don't think that the responsibility for making web sites accessible should be left up to web developers. Making one moderately sized web site accessible involves a reasonable amount of effort from both blinks, who have to lobby for the website to be made accessible and then validate that it is accessible, and from the web developers. There are zillions of websites out there on the wild wild web. This means that it would take an extremely large amount of effort to make them all accessible. Then there's always the frequent updates that seem to be the cornerstone of web development. The problem gets worse for large scale traditional desktop applications; I spent several thousand hours running accessibility tests on a large application from a well known vendor and we didn't manage to find and fix all the bugs.

Before anyone claims that I'm arguing against accessibility I'll say that I'm not; being a blink myself means that arguing against accessibility would make my life more of a mess. My argument is over who should make things accessible. My belief is that the AT vultures, erm vendors, should have the responsibility of making things accessible. There are only a handful of assistive technology products compared to the many zillions of websites and traditional desktop applications that fill our lives. Therefore, it would seem to be less effort for the at vultures to do something rather than everyone else. I know this goes against the social model of disability but then I'm a researcher, a scientist, and someone who believes that the social model of disability doesn't really describe the underlying processes that cause accessibility problems, but it does make you feel good when you can point the finger of blame at someone!

I'm sure that the AT vultures will claim that it is a lot of work to make something work with a screen reader. Based on current techniques I'd have to agree but who's to say that we're just limited to current techniques. There seems to be something of a desert in terms of innovation in the AT industry lately. Yeah, there have been major breakthroughs in screen readers over the past few years. For example, we can now use a different TTS engine to listen to long documents in Word and we can now receive frequent bug fixes over the web. The problem that I have with these major breakthroughs is that they really don't contribute advances in the area that really defines a screen reader. A screen reader is just a cog in a communications system; it acts as a translator between what's on the screen and a blink user. Screen readers are a bit like human translators; imagine the screen as being in Japanese and the only language you speak is English. Looking at it as a communications system suggests that it is theoretically possible to make a screen reader that could access anything. None of these major breakthroughs would seem to address this translation function that is core to the concept of a screen reader. There have been some breakthroughs in this area, such as using automation and extensibility API's to extract information, but these have been painfully few in number and the breakthroughs that we have had only seem to deal with specific applications and not with translation as a global process.

The desert of innovation becomes very apparent when you start to talk about usability and HCI issues. These are the issues that affect how easily, efficiently, and accurately someone can do something. There have only been two noteable advances in the usability of screen readers since screen readers were first conceived: quick navigation keys for websites, which mimick somewhat the naturally occuring phenomena of visual attention, and Speech and Sounds Manager, which provides a more efficient communications channel than serial speech. The black hole that seems to consume innovation in the AT industry becomes quite apparent when you talk to the AT vultures about how they can improve the usability of their products. When I pitched one idea to a senior VP he commented that usability issues were "training issues", when I pitched the same idea to a co-founder of a screen reader vendor he commented that the ideas I had "were things that nobody wanted", and a senior screen reader developer remarked that they were "gimmicks". yeah, I know that I'm a researcher and that I often don't explain these grand ideas that I have all that well but is allowing people to work easier, more efficiently, and more accurately really a gimmick? I suck at business but I thought those would have been killer features that people would have really wanted, and every researcher neurone that I possess tells me that what I was proposing would have gone someway to delivering those killer features. What's really shocking, well, shocking if you believe popular misconception, is that when I talked to Microsoft about this sort of thing they got it. I can hear you now, "What! You're saying that Microsoft understands accessibility better than AT vendors", yep, that's what I'm saying at least in terms of the usability of accessibility.

Maybe the folks at the top of the AT industry have been around for too long? Mental set and functional fixedness seem to have set in at the top, and this is one reason why the AT industry finds itself in the innovation desert that it is currently in. Whilst the guys at the top have done some great stuff in their day maybe it's time for them to step aside. Bringing in new talent would allow the AT industry to escape the trappings of mental set and functional fixedness allowing the rivers of innovation to flow once more through the AT industry's desert.

I'll wind up this comment at this point. I can hear people already saying that I should be thankful for screen readers that allow me to do what I can do but to me that's a bit like saying that I should go out on the streets and be thankful each time a passer by throws a coin in to the cup I'm holding out. Don't blinks deserve to get the best possible experience that they can have?

- or should that be Mini-FreedomScientific or GWExtremeMakeover?

4:09 AM  
Blogger Chairman Mal said...

Howdy Comrades!
Why must we have so many fratricidal and petty conflicts within the blind community? In Joe’s case, I think the odious weather in Canada may have warped an already crusty personality. With respect to errors in BC, have you noticed the numbers of corrections in the New York Times or the Washington Post? It seems to me that when Chris spouts wrong information, he quickly retracts his errors once they are pointed out to him. Let’s try to be nicer to one another before someone gets whacked by the BPP!
Chairman Mal
Power to the Peeps!

4:00 PM  

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