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Monday, November 19, 2007

Various Thoughts on a Sunny Monday

Today, I have no specific topic but will write about a bunch of different things.

 

JAWS 9.0

 

I read on Rick’s BlindGeekZone blog that JAWS 9.0 would release today as a final build.  I want to congratulate the team at FS for putting out a release that works far better than its immediate predecessors and, excepting the Vista Speech Recognition feature, JAWS 9.0 generally works much better in the applications I use most often which makes my life a bit easier.  If you use Word a lot, the price of the SMA is worth it just for improvements there alone. 

 

I think that FS also did a terrific job of addressing and prioritizing bugs posted by users during the beta cycle.  The result seems to be the most stable JAWS in years.  I’ve been living with 9.0 as my primary screen reader since the first public beta release and have found that most times things crashed on my computers that it had nothing to do with JAWS which is a major step forward.

 

Writing Projects

 

I try to avoid using too many cliches in my writing.  When I received my job offer from HJ, I was enrolled in a creative writing program at Harvard University (it is the college closest to our Cambridge home) and learned quite a few things.  If Ted and Jerry hadn’t decided to hire me, I’d probably have a low paying job teaching English somewhere right now instead of being a high priced technology consultant with more work than I can handle.

 

I get my creative outlet through writing for this blog and I am currently collaborating with some friends on two bits of long form gonzo writing.  The first book, “Hanging Out at 322,” based in the apartment in which a bunch of my old gang lived during the punk rock era with a number of fictional characters tossed in, brings the reader through the party that started in 1977 and continued until autumn 1983.  With two authors, using the names Boris Throbaum (me) and Gwen Camelot (my writing partner) we plan on alternating between our perceptions of events (real and fictional) from that era.

 

On my other writing project my partner is also a woman.  The working title is, “Groping through Life: The Tactile Method for Checking Out the opposite Sex,” This one has a blindness theme and comes from a male and female perspective.  We truly hope to lower the bar for sensibility and morality in books regarding people with disabilities by a notable amount.  We would like to find gay and lesbian contributors who would like to join the project.

 

Cliches

 

Because I often write about AT issues in this blog, I have a number of google news alerts set up to keep me informed of happenings around the biz.  It comes as no surprise that Freedom Scientific generates the most traffic as, holding the largest market share, they have the most users, hence, the most criticism and praise posted to blogs and other web sites.  In second place, though, comes the traffic generated by my alert on the text: Window-Eyes.

 

I suppose that google alerts ignores the hyphen in Window-Eyes so most of the email generated has nothing to do with the GW screen reader but, rather, comes from web sites and blogs dedicated to people’s writing projects.  While taking classes at Harvard, we would get a pile of criticism and recommendations for replacements if we used a cliché outside of a bit of dialogue.

 

I had no idea, though, just how many of the mediocre writers using the English language also include the word “window” followed by “eyes” in some piece of truly bad prose.

 

The general usage that comes in the google alerts tends towards, “she stared out of the window eyes filled with tears,” or “he looked through the car window eyes straining to see her drive away,” or “she stuck her head out of the window eyes wide and focused on Roger as he approached.”  I could include dozens more examples but these certainly provide enough to make my point.

 

I do not consider myself to be an especially good writer but my standards compare my work to serious professionals and, on occasion, to true masters like Faulkner, Hemmingway, Naipaul, Morrison and even Gwen, my partner on the punk book. 

 

For all arts, I ask the question of people who identify themselves as pick one or more: artist, writer, poet, singer, musician, dancer, performer, actor, etc. how they earn their living.  If it is through their art, I accept that they are artists; if it’s by waitressing, bartending, cleaning houses or any of the other jobs that people who claimed to be artists actually do to pay the bills; they are bartenders, waitresses, etc. and not actual artists.  The great jazz saxophone player, George Coleman, once said in an interview, “you can’t call yourself a musician until you can feed yourself with your horn,” I add pen, brush, dancing and so on.

 

I, therefore, according to my own rules, cannot call myself a writer as I make software for a living.  Hence, I am a software engineer and manager thereof.  If a whole lot of things fall exactly right and a 1 in probably more than a million chance occurs and one of our book projects makes actual money, I could then promote myself to part time writer and, in the extremely improbable case in which I can actually pay my bills through creative writing, I can then call myself an author but I doubt that this event will ever happen.

 

All real artists I know spend some to many hours daily working on their craft.  John Coltrane, likely the greatest saxophone player ever, spent 15 hours or more per day practicing.  Every professional writer I know spends a few hours per day writing in their diary if they have no major project going on.  Dancers, except when injured, dance daily; poets constantly compose; composers spend their hours listening to music and performance artists do whatever it is that they do which probably involves large doses of illicit drugs.  Very few people with a day job can also dedicate the time and energy required to become a full time artist.

 

Breadth of Screen Reader Features Versus Price of the Software

 

The other day, I had a phone call with a blind friend and fellow AT expert.  I, here in BC, had made an argument for free and open source access technology.  One of the specific reasons for this regards the price of AT versus mainstream hardware and software.  With Nick Negroponte and Intel working on $100-200 laptops for kids around the world, it will remain impossible for blind children in poor nations to enjoy access to these machines if screen readers sell for more than a few dollars and free and open source solutions also provide answers to obscure languages and installations in high security facilities.

 

My friend countered with his belief that he didn’t care if screen readers cost $5000 per license if they supported at least 90% of the applications out there.  He made the assumption that, at best, current Windows screen readers provide accessibility to about 10% of Windows applications.  I think this number is a bit higher for expert users who are comfortable poking around with JAWS or Mouse cursors but he’s probably pretty accurate for the beginner to average user.  I would also assert that, excepting other AT products and their own interfaces, no screen reader provides 100% functionality in more than 1% of mainstream applications either out-of-the-box or with scripts or configurations.

 

The basis for my buddy’s point comes from the thesis that access to more applications means access to better educational opportunities and to better jobs for people with vision impairment.  The most popular screen readers focus their energies on the software that most people need to use in their jobs.  I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t use MS Office at work if they work in a windows shop.  Web browsers get a lot of attention as well and I think we can accept that a browser is a requisite for any computer user today.  What from there though?

 

My friend suggests that ERP software is widely deployed in workplaces and should, therefore, be supported by screen readers.  This brings us back to the chicken and egg question of who is responsible, the screen reader vendor or the ISV, to make such software accessible?  Looking back on my time at FS, I recall doing a number of conference calls with ERP vendors who wanted their 508 VPAT to look good but neither wanted to change their own software to comply with any sort of standard or API nor did they want to pay FS to struggle through the process of square pegging their software into some level of accessibility. 

 

A screen reader company needs to determine if investing in such projects is in the best interest of their investors and users.  If the screen reader company does the work and raises its price to $5000 will purchasing such software be considered “reasonable” by a hiring company?  What if one screen reader vendor went all out and supported 90% of professional applications only to lose their state contracts to an AT vendor who releases a cheaper and much less functional alternative.

 

Keep in mind, the people making the purchasing decisions rarely also use the AT products.  If they see SAP running with JAWS or Window-Eyes and talking a little, they will assume it’s accessible.  Thus, if an AT sales person shows up with a $5000 solution that really sings with programs like Great Plains and SAP and other shows up with a $600 solution that talks well enough to handle a presentation given by one sighted person to another which will the company purchase?

 

I find that one of the worst things a screen reader vendor or mainstream software company can do is claim accessibility for some software and not really deliver it fully.  This creates the worst situation of all as some blind person gets hired based upon claims from the AT and mainstream companies and then gets sent home a couple of weeks later because they can not access the features they need to do their jobs.

 

So, in my opinion, price really matters and, especially in poor countries, it matters a lot.  I can see a future in which a high priced Cadillac solution co-exists with a free open source (or collection thereof) solution that is used by the masses.

 

Accessibility to News Sites

 

Recently, I created a google news account for myself.  It provides links to lots of interesting news stories on something around 5000 different web sites around the world.  Unfortunately, many of these sites fall far from “accessible” and even further from “usable.”

 

I find that, on many of these pages, it can take ten minutes or more to find the actual story.  The headline appears in a half dozen places but is then followed immediately by links to crap that I don’t want to look at.  I am not speaking to advertisements but, rather, everything one may want to do with an article in the Boston Globe or Fox News.  I don’t want to print the article, nor do I want to send it to a friend or even subscribe to their RSS feed – I want to read the article, that’s all. 

 

Using JAWS’ Quick Keys, sometimes the “h” will actually bring me to a header above the text of the story, a lot of times it just brings me to more crap about home delivery of the Omaha Gazette.  Using the “n” Quick Key tends to bring me to a sentence regarding more crap about the publisher and its web site and not the article itself.  Often, when I finally find the article, I read about two sentences and am then presented with a bunch of links, none of which are to the rest of the story and, frequently, this garbage is followed by Flash content that reads, “Button 1 Button 2 End Flash.”  I then continue to poke around the page until I find the article again.

 

I’m told that the aria standard will address a lot of these issues and that screen reader vendors are currently working with some of the people on the standards committee to prepare their software in time for a future release.  Of course, this also means that the bazillions of web pages out there need to comply with said standard which I do not think will happen anytime soon.

 

I’m sure Will Pearson will jump in here with an idea but it occurs to me that it might be possible to scrunch a web page into its component parts where a list of links can be opened with a keystroke but would only appear as a single line in a virtual buffer.  Links embedded in a paragraph could stay there as, in this situation, it is less likely that a large number of links would be bunched together.

 

With this faux semantic compression, a complex web site (audible.com, CNN, Fox Sports) may be simpler for a screen reader user to navigate and, if nothing else, it will be a lot less noisy.

 

I do not know if any research has been done in this area, I suspect so though as web accessibility has been a major topic of discussion for about a decade now.  If I find the time, I’ll do a search on scholar.google.com and see if I can find anything.  Of course, Will will probably beat me to the search so I may not need to do one.

 

-- End

 

6 Comments:

Anonymous Lloyd Rasmussen said...

On the complex news pages, the "x" key in Window-Eyes, which is equivalent to the "n" key in JAWS, can be configured to look for m lines of n characters if you want to do so. I used to have mine set up that way, but nowadays I have it set more like JAWS's long single line.

5:24 PM  
Anonymous Will Pearson said...

I know that Simon Harper at U Manchester has done some work on concertina browsers. It might be what you're looking for.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Pranav said...

There used to also be a website called accessiblenews.com that was an accessible rss reader. The site would simplify web pages and serve them for blind users. The creater had to shut down due to a lack of financial support. I am still in touch with the creater so let me know if you want to take the concept further.

3:40 AM  
Anonymous Per said...

For blind and visually impaired people from the poor countries open source solutions for mobile devices could be a great chance. That means access to satellite navigation, communication, internet and a lot of other nice things. The new OS Android from the Open Handset Alliance could enable this.
There is an open letter about this issue at
http://de.mini.wikia.com/wiki/Open_letter_initiative

Maybe you have to turn off the automatic language recognition of your screen reader because this english letter is part of a Wiki with german user interface.

I heard that Orca will run on the OLPC. Is that right?
This would be great for blind children all over the world and also for blind adults with sensitive fingers because of the small keys of the OLPC keyboard. ;-)

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When browsing news pages and other sites, I'm mostly bothered by advertising. Whereas a sighted person can rapidly skim down the page and avoid the ads, we as blind people are at a distinct disadvantage. wouldn't it be amazing if there was some kind of program that could be written to teach screenreaders to skip past ads. the program could identify ads by looking for key phrases (sponsored links, google ad," etc and could be set up in such a way that you could train it to recognize ads more efffectively. In the event that the program mistakenly indentified something as an ad that wasn't an ad, jaws could say something like "possible ad," and if you pressed enter the text would be displayed.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Hi Chris. My dad just set up my new computer over the long weekend, and I've been playing around with Windows VISTA a bit. I haven't really done too much but I'm very impressed so far. Regarding JAWS 9, I am currently running it in demo mode. I called FS this afternoon and talked to Scott in Sales, and he said I should be receiving my CD's for 9.0 any day now. I was kind of uncertain since I had upgraded, hence my reason for phoning. But this version seems to be very good. One other thing: I started out with NVDA on here, but it seemed to perform rather sluggishly and it didn't seem to read everything correctly. For one thing, I kept hearing beep tones whenever I tried to install or remove something. Now that I have uninstalled NVDA and replaced it with the latest and greatest version of JAWS, I am aware of the User Account Control thingy.

6:34 PM  

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