Recently, my good friend Mike Calvo appeared on Wall Street Journal Live and said a number of things that I believe are misleading and or incorrect. As a matter of disclosure, Mike and I have been good friends for a really long time. I respect Mike for the many contributions he has made to access technology and for his leadership as the only CEO of a notable screen reader company who is also a user of said technology. Mike brings a user’s perspective to the products on which he works which is sorely lacking in products from his competition.
Mike and I disagree on a whole lot of things but this doesn’t effect our friendship and our points of disagreement are far fewer than areas on which we agree.
The WSJ piece with Calvo started when the host asked him about lawsuits by NFB and others over web accessibility. Mike said, “No one wants to have the sword of ‘regulation’ put to their throats.” Mike didn’t seem to understand the differences between “litigation” and “regulation” and mixing the two up probably caused a lot of confusion in viewers. Specifically, regulation, laws like 508, 255, ADA and, most recently and importantly, The 21st Century Video and Communication Act of 2010, contain “regulations” but have nothing whatsoever to do with litigation.
Lawsuits, including those by NFB against various web sites, are known as litigation. Typically, an individual or group chooses to litigate when they feel that the laws or “regulations” have been violated. NFB felt that Amazon, Target and others were violating the ADA and took legal action against them. The NFB settlements in these cases hardly resulted in any accessibility improvements because NFB elected to not include requirements for such in the consent decree in these cases. NFB’s lawsuits are not, however, “regulation” but, rather, an attempt to get laws we already have enforced.
The state of access technology for people with vision impairment (PWVI) prior to ADA – a Federal government mandate, the sort of thing that Calvo says he opposes, went into effect was pretty dismal. As no law required employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities, there was little motivation to build screen access utilities with extensive support for professional applications. In those days, screen readers did a few interesting things, supported a few popular DOS and GNU/Linux applications and a few people were actually able to use them in a job setting. Sadly, I do not know the history of access technology used by people with disabilities unrelated to vision but I suspect it was similar.
During the George HW Bush administration , the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and signed by the president. This bit of landmark legislation required that all public places, including employer sites, make “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities (PWD). Not long afterward, the screen reader, the primary bit of technology used by people with vision impairment (PWVI), became an important way for employers to fulfill their requirements under ADA for employees with vision impairment. Suddenly, a company like Henter-Joyce, authors and publishers of the popular JAWS screen reading software, went from making a hundreds thousand dollars per year to earning more than a million dollars in sales monthly demonstrating a rapid increase in the numbers of PWVI with access to computers – a change that wouldn’t have occurred without the Federal mandate.
The next big piece of disability oriented legislation, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, mandated that to sell electronics and information technology (E&IT) products to the Federal government that they must be made accessible to PWD. Section 508 came into effect during the George W. Bush administration and some specific agencies did start moving to requirements for full accessibility and various states passed similar legislation regarding their purchases.
Because of 508 and various state laws, Apple Inc. found that it couldn’t sell its Macintosh line of personal computers to many federal and state purchasers with very deep pockets. Massachusetts in enacted a similar law that included education purchases statewide and, as they are a state that spends disproportionately well on its schools, Apple had to become accessible or face losing a huge market. Apple’s accessibility, unparalleled among mainstream companies, came not to increase sales but, rather, to avoid losing them due to regulations.
Meanwhile, pressured by falling sales in school districts, state and federal agencies, Apple set out and did its own screen reader. First, Apple called us at Freedom Scientific to ask us to do JAWS for Macintosh. I proposed the idea of doing a Macintosh screen reader at an FS executive staff meeting and was laughed out of the room with the statement, “blind people don’t care about Apple products.” Here, I will point out that, in 2011, only two screen readers saw increased market share: NVDA and VoiceOver, the Apple solution. As market share is a zero sum game, JAWS, Window-Eyes and all other screen readers must, therefore, have seen a drop in their shares.
The next bit of legislation interesting to this population is Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act. This law requires that all telecommunications hardware be accessible to PWD. Under the Bush administration, the FCC mostly ignored this regulation. While most telecommunications equipment remains inaccessible and Microsoft Windows Phone 7 came with no accessibility at all, Apple has once again taken the lead and, for more than 4 years now, PWVI have had a wonderful experience on the iPhone. Google seems to have caught on with Talkback and ChromeVox on its OS offerings which aren’t as smooth to use as iPhone but do an adequate job especially when enhanced by some self-voicing apps available in the Android Market. Remember, prior to 255, there were virtually zero accessible mobile or smart phones so this is another government mandate that creates regulations that has led to progress for people with disabilities.
There is more legislation coming into effect soon. The most sweeping is “The 21st Century Video and Communications Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA).” This law, passed with more than 400 votes in the House and unanimously in the Senate during a year when Congress couldn’t agree if the sun was out, gives the FCC sweeping powers to require accessibility in a tremendous number of technologies. I contend that this legislation is already causing a lot of interesting accessibility engineering and, once FCC has its rules for enforcing the legislation in place, virtually all software companies will be working on accessibility soon. This is a good thing and it is yet another aspect of big government that we count on.
Which of the regulations above should be repealed? Which of these “put a sword” to the throats of nice people with inaccessible web sites? I contend that these laws are the basis of a movement for the civil rights of people with disabilities and have done a lot already and I hope we will see more success from these laws into the future.
Calvo suggested that the best way to approach a web site with poor accessibility is by sending polite letters to them asking that they become accessible. This is a good idea and a nice thing to say but having personally written to thousands of different web sites on my own behalf and that of others, in most cases offering to test for no charge, I can report that my results in this effort has been dismal. Others to whom I talked with in preparation for this article said the same was true for them as well. This isn’t to say that we haven’t had some victories but our winning percentage is atrocious.
Mike also proposed that we blind people can tell a business that we won’t purchase things from them if they do not become accessible. There are approximately 1.75 million blind people in the US, .53% of the total population. Would a CEO be able to go to his board with a budgetary request based upon selling product to a tiny fragment of the whole? Frankly, every large web site company already knows about web accessibility and, those that remain inaccessible, have chosen to ignore it as best as they can.
Beginning in October 2013, CVAA allows for the FCC to fine a web site, communications device manufacturer including televisions,, mobile devices, mobile device software and lots more up to $100,000 per day for not being accessible. If you are making an iOS app or web site and can face a million dollar fine for inaccessibility, you will take accessibility far more seriously than you will if you hear from a half dozen blind geeks via email asking politely for changes.
Then, Mike said that he believed that some web sites need not become accessible as, “blind people don’t care about a graphic design site or something like that.” Perhaps, I want to start a new company and want to hear descriptions of work from graphic design firms whom I may want to hire? More importantly, though, Mike was on a segment entitled, “Deaf and Blind Sue Over Internet Shopping” and he seems to forget about the deaf people.
Some of our deaf friends understand ASL very well but have trouble reading English. These people use a “screen reader” that, instead of reading the text aloud via a speech synthesizer or pushing up dots on a braille display, shows an animation of a character reading the text in sign language. Deaf people may want a graphic designer now and then as most of them can also see.
People with learning disabilities, disorders like dyslexia, also employ access technology to be able to access the Internet in a manner they can understand. These tools rely on the same accessibility guidelines and standards as do screen readers for we blind people and, without accessibility on all sites, someone’s rights will be trampled.
A fundamental problem with the strategies Calvo and NFB propose is that they try to tackle one web site at a time. I will proffer the wager that more new web sites will go online in the time it has taken me to write this story than our entire community can test in a lifetime. Writing to individual web sites asking for accessibility will never solve the greater problem of 97% of all web sites (according to the UN Internet Accessibility group) having accessibility violations. The NFB and ACB strategies of “constructive engagement” seems to be doing some good with sites like Monster.com but, again, tackling one site at a time does not solve the problem of an inaccessible Internet ecosystem. NFB lawsuits seem to get money for NFB but, in the cases of Target and Amazon, resulted neither in real accessibility improvements on those web sites nor in a greater movement for accessibility in the overall Internet. Taking on one site at a time will never achieve the goal; having legislation like CVAA in place will help. With CVAA, we have teeth to our civil rights laws and, if used effectively, we can do things on a basis of all sites based in US.
Like the environment, civil and human rights for people with disabilities have no market forces to support them. Our population is far too small to effect the bottom line of a discriminatory organization – capitalism has historically failed minorities and, today, it fails people with disabilities.