Last month James “Jamie” Teh announced he would be leaving NVAccess, an organization he co-founded with Mick Curren to create, improve and maintain NVDA, the screen reader used by an estimated 40% of blind people on the Windows platform. Almost immediately, I started receiving Twitter direct messages (DMs) and emails asking what I thought about this development. This article is my answer to those questions.
For the sake of background, I recommend you also read an article I published on May 23 of this year titled, “NVDA: Now More Than Ever!” as it contains some of the concepts I mention in this piece in greater depth than you will find below.
Please Thank And Congratulate Jamie
Before I discuss the potential ramifications of Jamie’s departure from full time work at NVAccess, I want to thank him personally and on behalf of our entire community for the more than ten years that he spent creating and improving NVDA. Blind computer users have benefited greatly from Jamie’s work and dedication to the cause and we all owe he and Mick an enormous debt of gratitude.
We should also congratulate Jamie on his new position with Mozilla Foundation. He will bring his tremendous hacking skills and keen sense of user needs while continuing to make the online future for people with vision impairment and other disabilities better. With Jamie on board, Mozilla will make great advances in accessibility for all who need it.
Jamie has already done amazing things for our community, please offer him your thanks for his work on NVDA and congratulate him on his new gig with Mozilla.
The Impact On NVDA And The Community
If Glen Gordon, the technology lead on JAWS, announced his retirement from VFO, a couple of other blind VFO software engineers might be able to step into his shoes and take on its technical leadership. Alternatively, because NVDA is free, libre open source software (FLOSS), there are literally hundreds of people who have seen different parts of its source code, contributed new code to fix bugs or add features, built useful add-ons like NVDA Remote Access and DictationBridge and have helped its development in as many ways as one can imagine.
Jamie will still be available to the NVDA community on an ad hoc advisory basis and hundreds of people can and will continue developing NVDA into the future.
As was proven when VFO killed its Window-Eyes product leaving its users out in the cold and needing to spend precious time and possibly money learning a different screen reader, we, the community of blind technology enthusiasts could not pick up the Window-Eyes ball and guide it into the future. When a proprietary solution is changed or eliminated by its publishers, we have no power as a community to do anything about it. In the Glen Gordon situation, VFO has a few who may be able to step in to replace him; in Jamie’s case, we’ve a battalion of hackers ready and willing to join the effort.
A Few Specific Examples
Anyone who cares to can look at the NVDA revision history on GitHub, and learn who made which changes, who added which features and who wrote the plug-ins included by default with the screen reader. In NVDA version 2017.3, one will see that both Mick and Jamie made important contributions but so did our friends Joseph Lee, Tyler Spivey and a fellow named Leonard de Ruijter from The Netherlands did as well. These were important contributions that added Grade II braille, extending support for Microsoft’s Edge browser, how refreshable braille is displayed and to permit users to employ Windows OneCore voices in Windows 10.
As I wrote in “Now More Than Ever,” it’s the NVDA user community that drives the future of their favorite screen reader. Led by our friend Derek Riemer the live NVDACon online conference permits all attendees to participate in the dialogue and ask whatever questions they like. Contrasted with the JAWS user community, the top JAWS engineers are rarely confronted with the daily problems faced by their users and the VFO product shows this disregard for the individual users as it slides increasingly into a low quality package.
Who Has The Power?
Recently, we’ve witnessed VFO killing Window-Eyes. JAWS is not FLOSS and while VFO has a pair of engineers who may be able to replace someone like Glen Gordon, the community of people working on various aspects of NVDA can grow into a cast of thousands..
Contrast the death of Window-Eyes to the community of hundreds of people who participate in every aspect of NVDA from coding to writing documentation to translating it into as many different languages as possible to testing to reporting bugs to suggesting new features to doing absolutely everything necessary to maintain and improve a screen reader and we can only conclude that the FLOSS NVDA model is the one that gives the power to the community rather than a handful of mostly sighted gatekeepers.
When Ted Was In Charge
I joined the JAWS team as its leader when it was still owned by an actual mom and pop, the terrific Ted Henter and his lovely wife Mel. As I was the manager responsible for ensuring that JAWS would ship to the public on time and within its budget, Ted would sometimes drive me crazy. In those days, if Ted got a phone call or an email from a single user experiencing a bug in JAWS that prevented them from doing their job, Ted would shut down my software engineering shop from all other work until the bug was fixed and the blind employee could continue doing their job. As a manager, this drove me crazy; as a blind user of the technology we developed, I had to applaud Ted each time he did this.
After the merger that created Freedom Scientific (now VFO), we moved from the “help any user at all cost,” Ted Henter model to the more profitable “90% rule,” in which we would prioritize bugs that would effect 90% of our users and we ignored the bugs that might help a few people keep their jobs or continue their studies. It’s a lot easier to manage a department using the 90% rule but it also meant that some blind people would lose their jobs with each new JAWS release.
You may disagree but I’m a firm believer that we, the community of blind computer users should be the ones with the power in our hands. When Ted was in charge of JAWS, we had a blind person making the decisions; within days of the merger, Ted was out and very few blind people had actual influence over the future of JAWS. When I got chucked out, nobody was left behind to fight at the executive level for the users.
How You Can Help
As I wrote in the introduction to this piece, I’d like to once again recommend that you read my article “NVDA: Now More Than Ever!” as it’s only a few months old and it contains a lot of ideas for how literally any screen reader user can join the legion of NVDA activists. Here are a few things you might find interesting as a way to help:
- As with any other technology product, NVDA needs money to keep it moving forward. If you believe that blind people should have control of our own destinies and haven’t spare time to volunteer to help NVDA, you can go to the donate page on the NVAccess site and kick in a few bucks to keep the fires burning. No contribution is too small and the NVAccess team appreciates all contributions.
- If you’ve programming skills, especially if you know the Python programming language, you can help write code and fix bugs in NVDA itself.
- If you’re multi-lingual, you can help with translations.
- If you’re a good writer, you can help with documentation.
- Every user is qualified to be a tester, if you see bugs, things that you would like to see changed, features you would like to see added to NVDA and so on, you can make certain that these are reported properly as either defects or suggestions to make sure that the people working on the code can get them done.
- There are literally dozens of other ways you can be helpful so be creative and find ways you can join this important movement.
We are at a crossroads in the world of blindness and technology. We can sell our souls to the proprietary model and allow the VFO executive team and board of directors, each group having no more than one blind person as members, make the decisions for us or we can seize the day and take control of our own future.
The numbers are in our favor, we have an entire army of NVDA activists; VFO has a small squadron of primarily sighted people making decisions on our behalf.
Lastly, if you haven’t already, please do both thank Jamie for his service to the community in the past and congratulate him on his new job helping to make the online world more accessible for all of us.