Eight days ago, I wrote an article here called “The Death of Screen Reader Innovation” and posted it on Saturday July 20, 2013. For a variety of reasons I didn’t expect this article to be much of a hit. I posted the item on a Saturday, typically a slow day for traffic on this site, I hardly said anything that I hadn’t written a bunch of times in my old “Blind Confidential” blog and, as often happens, I assumed that it the readers would come from my usual echo chamber of fans who almost always agree with me. I thought that the article might be perceived as self serving as it sought to redefine my own place in the history of access technology and told the story entirely from my own perspective.
Within hours of posting the article, though, I realized that I had touched some sort of raw nerve among people who find screen readers interesting. Readers wrote comment after comment and, even more so, sent me private communications via the contact form on this site. By Wednesday of the week, a pointer to the article had been tweeted and retweeted repeatedly and the comments and emails kept coming. At some point during the week, someone posted a link to the article on the forums at AudioGames.net and the tone of the communications turned very dark. I realized at this point that, perhaps for the first time with this blog, I had reached the rank and file screen reader users – a population with whom I rarely have any contact.
I wrote “Death of Screen Reader Innovation” thinking, as I often do, of cool new ideas that have never made it into screen readers. Ideas that could improve the efficiency with which one interacts with a screen reader, ideas that could improve the understanding of information when using a screen reader, dominate my own thoughts and is what turns me on. This is my blog and I write about what interests me most.
At the same time, many of those commenting on the article, either publicly or privately, wrote that, while innovation is a nice thing and that JAWS releases were exciting for that reason years ago, the biggest problem with screen readers today is that they have deteriorated in quality, support fewer applications necessary at job sites and are often the barriers to employment and promotion.
On the day on which I resigned from my position as VP/Software Engineering at Freedom Scientific, JAWS 6.0 (the latest release at that time) supported applications required in many job sites, including professional applications like Microsoft Access and Microsoft Project among others. While I had no personal experience with Access (it just wasn’t important to my job at FS), I used Project daily. Some of the comments I received described situations in which a blind person was refused a job or a promotion entirely because they cannot use these two important pieces of software. These communications were heartbreaking, perfectly smart and talented individuals prevented from succeeding due to deterioration of their access technology wrote about the barriers they now face with great sadness.
I also heard a lot about the failures of JAWS in remote access solutions like Citrix and the Microsoft equivalent. Numerous people told me that they lost jobs when JAWS stopped working in these areas required for their continued employment. I also heard from students and professionals frustrated that software like Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint no longer worked as well with JAWS as they once did. I heard all sorts of stories about all kinds of problems with JAWS in areas in which it once worked very well but, due to a refusal to fix bugs, now takes a blind user far longer to accomplish the same things as it did a number of years ago.
Quite a to of these people stated that they no longer maintain their JAWS Software Maintenance Agreement (SMA) as they found that continuing to pay for upgrades was pointless – the problems they experienced were ignored and the apps they need were no longer supported. Most of these people have moved to NVDA, VoiceOver or System Access which all have financial benefits over JAWS but, sadly, none provide the extensive support for professional applications needed in the workplace by these users who, due to such, are losing jobs and showing high levels of despair.
When I first started at Henter-Joyce (now called Freedom Scientific), I reported to a terrific guy and then General Manager of the company, Jerry Bowman. On my first day on the job, he told me, “Ted will screw up schedules for his pet projects. It’s your job to keep projects on track and to manage Ted.”
“I’m to ‘manage the company’s president?’ I’m to manage a legend?'” I asked myself.
A few weeks into my HJ tenure, I learned what Jerry meant. I entered the office of one of our full time software engineers to discuss a new feature. He told me that he wasn’t working on the assignment I had given him. When I asked for an explanation, the engineer told me that Ted had come to him and asked that he work on scripts for an application I had never heard of. Frustrated, I stomped down the hall into Ted Henter’s office and asked him what the hell he thought he was doing with my team.
In short, Ted explained that Joe Blow (a name we’ll use for a random user) had called him personally (at that point, anyone calling could just ask for the boss and be connected immediately by the receptionist), told him he was in jeopardy of losing his job as a trucking dispatcher due to the latest version of the software and asked that it be scripted so he could continue in his job. Ted Henter was willing to shut down the entire shop until we made the changes to save a single user’s position – a commitment that could only come from a visionary who believed deeply in the JAWS acronym: JOB Access With Speech.
At that time, in 1997, I had spent most of my adult life in software engineering or the management thereof. I had delivered a ton of releases for companies like Microsoft, Wordperfect and Novell. I had shipped software on which I had worked to millions and millions of people. Shutting down a development cycle for a single bug wasn’t unheard of but doing so for a single user seemed absurd. I tried to argue that we had thousands of users waiting on the next release and its cool new features but Ted wouldn’t listen. To Ted, if a single user was going to lose a job, it was our commitment to the user to fix their problem. This attitude, pounded into my feeble mind by Henter, had to be pounded back out after the merger that formed Freedom Scientific so I would look at “the 80%” and ignore the individuals. Obviously, this attitude continues today and seems to have gotten worse.
The Accessibility Echo Chamber
On Thursday, I was on the phone with fellow Access Technology insider, Jim Tobias. Our conversation was centered in fairly obscure details of the AT industry, focussing mainly on the size of the market and the estimated marketshare of various screen readers. As an aside, though, Jim asked, “Are we always just talking to the same people?” I was unsure but as comments and emails continued to pour in from the rank and file, I realized that we so-called “leaders” in this field pretty much only talk to each other and focus our attention on innovation while missing out on hearing about the daily problems encountered by those we claim to serve.
To wit: On my Macbook Air, I have installed the following screen readers:
I can, therefore, use applications on three separate operating systems and find the one most convenient for me for any specific task. Most users have one or two screen readers, typically some older version of JAWS they got from a purchasing agent at their school or job and NVDA because it comes at no cost. A bunch are now using VoiceOver on a Macintosh and enjoying many of its features but complaining again that professional applications aren’t supported.
From the feedback I received, I’m certain that our echo chamber needs to expand substantially. There are a whole lot of people out there who cannot access employment because they cannot access the software they need to do these jobs. This is an abject failure of the AT industry to even maintain support for those who already have jobs to maintain such and to hopefully get a promotion or two int he future.
When I worked at FS, we would often start supporting an application just because I wanted to use it myself. I, like all blind managers at FS, used Microsoft Project daily. We used it to track progress on all of our software engineering tasks down to the hour. We used it to accessibly view Gantt charts and project budgets. I cannot imagine running such a complicated department with so many engineers, so many tasks and so many different projects and products without such a tool. I guess it would be impossible for a blind person to do the job I had at FS today and, worse, FS seems uninterested in making it possible.
The 508 Failure
If you don’t know about Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, you should look it up. It was one of the most important bits of legislation in the history of accessible technology. In short, 508 required that all electronic and information technology (E&IT) purchased by the US federal government be accessible by about a decade ago. At first, this law caused a whole lot of mainstream software companies, businesses like Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Adobe, MacroMedia, PeopleSoft, Citrix and other giants with very deep pockets to start taking accessibility seriously. Unfortunately, loopholes in the law and a lack of serious enforcement by the General Services Administration (GSA), the agency charged with enforcing the act, has resulted in software being used in the federal government being marginally accessible at best. The downstream effects of federal accessibility laws, therefore, have also not been seen as, if the feds don’t require accessibility, no one will.
Many people with vision impairment work in various government jobs. I have friends at Veterans Administration, Department of Education, Department of Labor, CIA, NSA and in most other government agencies. I’d bet that you, my loyal readers know blind people in these roles too. Just ask them, is all of the software they need to use accessible via their screen reader? They will say “no” but have no idea how to correct the situation.
One of the applications most requested by those who sent in comments and emails about “Death of Screen Reader Innovation,” [was Intuit’s popular QuickBooks. While I worked at FS, I had the opportunity to speak to William Campbell, then Intuit CEO, on the phone and he said, “I can’t get them to make a Macintosh version of QuickBooks, I really cannot promise an accessible one.” He then described the fierce independence each product team has at Intuit and that even the CEO can’t get things done.
We had a meeting with the QuickBooks development team. They didn’t support MSAA (UIA hadn’t been invented yet), they didn’t use any standard controls and they had no VBA scripting ability. In short, QuickBooks is a black box that a tool like a screen reader cannot access. In that meeting, I asked if they used automated testing tools and when they said they did, I proffered the idea that they let us access QuickBooks by the test tool API which would have solved the problem. The engineering team agreed and we thought we had a solution; sadly, the product managers at Intuit killed the notion and the project stopped there.
While I think FS and the other screen reader manufacturers and publishers have a lot of faults, I can say with certainty that all would support QuickBooks if it was technically possible. Don’t blame the screen readers for this one, poor accessibility lies entirely in the hands of Intuit.
Where DO Screen Readers End and Applications Begin?
As with QuickBooks, we cannot blame the screen reader authors for inaccessibility in many applications. I haven’t looked under the hood at Access and Project in the past nine years. It is possible, therefore, that Microsoft broke the API that JAWS uses to communicate with these important applications and that, therefore, it is impossible for JAWS to offer the full level of support that was possible in the past. I’m willing, however, to venture a wager that the truth lies somewhere in between, Microsoft changed its API and JAWS wasn’t maintained well enough to keep current with said changes.
We do, however, need to recognize that the problems with deteriorating support for applications may not lie entirely within the screen rear industry. It is likely that due to lack of 508 enforcement, companies like Microsoft have taken accessibility less seriously as, if they’re not losing sales, they have no motivation to remedy the problems.
What About Window-Eyes?
Some noted that I neglected to say much, if anything, about GW Micro or their Window-Eyes screen reader in the article on the death of innovation. This is absolutely true, of all of the screen readers out there, Window-Eyes is the one about which I know the least. When, in 1998, I first joined HJ, I was told that JAWS and Window-Eyes had approximately the same marketshare with about 35,000 users each. Then, Window-Eyes seemed like a formidable foe. They had the virtual buffer-like, MSAA mode which was certainly nicer than the JAWS “screen reformatting” approach to the web and they did a bunch of things better than we could with our product.
Over the following six years, though, the years I spent in the business, the GW Micro Window-Eyes strategy turned from one that could build a competitive screen reader into such a bizarre approach that it seemed simply incomprehensible. Doug Geoffray, as CEO of GW, would assail JAWS for simply having a scripting language, the core power of our software, by telling users that they “had to learn a complicated programming language,” a statement that was simply a lie.
GW then allowed Window-Eyes to fall far behind JAWS in virtually all professional applications. As we were adding support for Access and Project, as we were massively improving the experience in the MS Office applications, Window-Eyes did little to keep up. As we defined the professional experience, GW Micro left their users behind.
At the crux of the difference between the HJ/FS approach and that taken by GW was MSAA, the first standard accessibility API. GW Micro felt that MSAA was the future and banked heavily on it. We realized that MSAA was, indeed, a standard but it was an awful standard. The API simply didn’t allow for access to a whole lot of information deemed necessary for a user to have full access to these often complex applications so, we used it where it was useful but sought other approaches where available to provide essential augmentations to data presented to JAWS users. Largely with the blessing of developers at Microsoft, Wordperfect (Novell) and other companies, we used whatever we could get access to in order to make the experience as excellent for our users as possible.
During that time, big companies like Adobe and MacroMedia would come to FS as we emerged as the de facto standard screen reader for help making their software accessible. At FS, we would point them to our consulting services group, a team with a price tag of $125 per hour or more and offer to do a proposal for a number of tens of thousands of dollars. Certainly, Adobe and their peers can afford to pay the comparatively small Freedom Scientific for our time, couldn’t they? Instead, in most cases, these big companies sought help from GW Micro who, at no charge to the big organization, would help them make an MSAA based solution, enforcing mediocre accessibility permanently. It boggled our minds at FS, why would GW give away hundreds of thousands of dollars in effort to help make billion dollar businesses make hundreds of millions of dollars in federal sales with no guaranteed return in units shipped of Window-Eyes? This was, plain and simply, bad business but it was a poor strategy for GW that worked very well for FS. GW would spend the dollars on research and development without compensation from the industry giants and, a few months later, after they did the work, we’d add support into JAWS benefitting from their work while growing our own marketshare.
GW’s intense commitment to the failing MSAA standard caused them to lose years of competition with JAWS and allowed FS to grow from a share roughly tied with Window-Eyes into a powerhouse with a more than 80% share around the world. We focussed on features and functionality for our users without regard to a poor standard; GW obsessed on MSAA seeing it as an easy answer to big problems, they got lazy and allowed their loyal users to fall far behind those who used JAWS, especially in the workplace.
Is the Future All Gloom and Despair?
A reader of this or my “Death Of Innovation” article may think, due to the various economic motives demonstrated for not improving or maintaining a screen reader that the future is quite bleak. The people who wrote to me after “Death Of” listed such a wide collection of professional humiliations caused by the failure of their access technology to keep up with developments in mainstream technology that I was brought to tears while reading more than one of their comments and emails. One went so far as to suggest that he contemplates suicide due to his lack of employment prospects. This sadness is real, very deep and, from what I could learn, is ignored by technical experts like myself and my friends and by the AT companies as well.
While I have no real numbers to support this, I think, based on the outpouring of frustration and despair by those who wrote to me, that most screen reader users experience a tremendous level of frustration, agony, fear, anger and hopelessness every day when they try to use these products. As I wrote at the top of this article, I have a bunch of different screen readers installed and have the technical wherewithal to handle a lot of problems. I am not representative of the community at large and, therefore, live in a state of privilege unknown to most other blind people.
The outlook, however, is not entirely bad. NVDA and Orca, in my mind, are the future. These projects are not run in the same way as screen readers made by either giants like Apple and Microsoft nor do they have the intense economic pressures faced by products from the AT industry. Free software solutions can be funded by contributions, corporate or government grants and, because they are driven by user communities, developers are usually also users and can write code to do the things they want and need.
The free software model isn’t perfect, we run into the problem of having too few hackers in our community to do the things mainstream free software efforts like Apache can do. Again, this comes to a problem of money but, if NVDA and Orca can find contributions and grants, they are better positioned to make the important features possible compared to a company that also needs to focus on the 80% rather than on actual usability.
How Can You Help?
A lot of people who wrote to me asked if they could do anything, as non-programming, blind individuals to help move things forward. Instead of answering them individually, I chose to include this section in this article.
Some things you can do to make screen readers better even if you can’t write code:
- Many of you wrote that you no longer maintain your JAWS SMA. This means you’re saving $125 per year. Please take a portion of these dollars, let’s ay $25 as a minimum and send it to either the NVDA or Orca projects depending upon whether you care more about Windows or GNU/Linux.
- If you have writing or teaching skills, maybe you could volunteer to help these projects write documentation and/or tutorials. These areas are cost centers for all software development and are harder for free software projects to accomplish so, even if your work isn’t great, it will be appreciated by some people out there. We need progress; not perfection.
- Try to convince others to support NVDA or Orca by using the software, sending contributions or participating in ways they feel comfortable that would also be useful to the projects.
- Think of your own ways of helping and make suggestions about such to the people involved in these projects. I certainly don’t have all of the ideas and you should feel free to add your own.
How Will I Work To Effect Change?
A bunch of people asked, “If things are so bad, what are you going to do about it?” My initial answer was to remind people of what it says in my blog and Twitter profiles, “I’m a crank, a crackpot and a stoner with a blog. I don’t do anything worthwhile beyond being a social critic, a public intellectual and a writer who discusses these problems. My role is to write these articles and hope they effect change in some indirect manner.”
Somehow, this didn’t feel right to me. I can state the problem but I can’t offer a solution. Some of this comes from my skills having eroded over time. I am pretty out of date. I know little of web programming and nothing beyond the standards for such. I’m an old C and assembly language hacker with no skills for working on accessibility software anymore.
Then, my friend Gordon, a super web and database hacker and one who has worked on some accessibility contracts over the years told me to stop crying and get back on the horse. He reminded me that I had pretty much taught myself everything else I know and that, just because I’m 53 years old, I’ve no excuse for learning a few new skills if, indeed, the work was so fucking important.
Over the past week or so, I decided that I would try to help by:
Working on WordPress accessibility by hacking some plugins and the like to make WordPress administration simpler for people who use access technology. I’ve never spent any time using the PHP programming language nor have I studied how WordPress itself works so, thus far, progress has been slow. After about a week of reading a lot of code, it’s starting to make sense to me and, perhaps, I’ll actually be doing interesting things soon. I think making the tools accessible is really important as, given that 70% of all new web sites going online today will use WordPress, making it accessible out-of-the-box will cascade forward making lots of automatically accessible web sites in the future.
As per a request by my good friend Pratik Patel, founder and CEO of EZ Fire, I will also be working on NVDA scripts to better its support in Microsoft and Open Office applications. As I did a lot of the design for JAWS once heralded support in these programs and that I had prototyped some of those scripts, I have a solid understanding of how the screen reader side of this works. I don’t, however, know the Python programming language at all so there will be lots of learning involved in this effort as well.
I’m going to try to learn a whole lot in order to do a few cool things. I don’t know if I’ll be good at these tasks but given that I’ve been programming since I was eleven years old (42 summers ago) I’m fairly confident I can figure it out. At the very least, I’m going to try as that’s all I can do.
A Few Heroes
Before I end, I want to mention a few people out there doing the really heavy lifting to support accessibility for this community. Friends of the community Mick Curran and Jamie The who lead the NVDA project come first to mind. These guys, ignoring offers for high paying software engineering jobs, spend their days and nights making the best free screen reader for Windows out there. They are approaching the JAWS level of support in many professional apps and do an even better job in some areas. Please, send these guys your thanks and some money so they can continue in their heroic efforts.
Joanmarie Diggs is the heroine of the Orca screen reader. She has a full time day job that involves Orca work but she has lots of unrelated tasks as well. She spends hours upon hours of otherwise free time ensuring that her users have her best efforts in hand. Please send Joanie your thanks and send a few bucks to her project if you like using the GNU/Linux OS or think you may like it in the future.
Having now read a couple of hundred emails from desperate users struggling to find employment or general satisfaction in their lives through computing, I conclude:
- Many blind people out in the real world are suffering badly and unnecessarily due to the failures of the AT industry, large mainstream OS companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google, thinkers like me who put cool new ideas ahead of solid, stable and usable technology, the economy, the government and the vocational/rehabilitation community.
- The people who are suffering aren’t lazy and aren’t avoiding work. Quite the contrary, these people seem deeply committed to contributing to our society but simply do not have opportunities nor the technology to get such in the current landscape.
- Section 508 and similar state regulations have helped in the past but it seems today that mainstream companies can get away with a lot of poor accessibility due to lack of serious enforcement by GSA.
- Our community can take ownership of free software screen readers like Orca and NVDA, getting involved in the projects and take control of our own technological destiny.
It is my never humble opinion that we can create an excellent technological future if we do, indeed, take ownership of our own problems. To date, we have let AT companies and mainstream OS authors drive the technology we need to use and the results have been mediocre at best and horrible for many.
Pratik Patel says
FYI, there is an ongoing project at Intuit to add APIs that will allow screen readers to gain the object info for Quickbooks to be made accessible. Additionally, Intuit has done a remarkable job of making its mobile apps accessible. THanks to Ted Drake (formerly of Yahoo), the accessibility work is progressing well.
Piotr Machacz says
Very nice post, once again. One thing I don’t necessarily agree on though is MSAA. Having said that I did feel window-eyes was lagging behind in about 2005, now it’s the exact opposite. Because JAWS, and Supernova for that matter, rely so heavily on video intercept, it results in many issues which simply aren’t a problem with other screen readers. For example, long list items being truncated, or a help balloon covering a edit box causing JAWS to mix in its contents with what ever you’re trying to read.These things simply don’t happen with NVDA, system access or Window-eyes.
Travis Roth says
While not the same thing as Quicken, QuickBooks Online can be used at least to some degree by screen reader users. It has as much to do with all the effort screen readers have put in to work with web applications as with QuickBooks Online, and it is not a perfect or fully accessible solution by any means but it can be used at this time if you really need it.
Jim Tobias says
Thanks for the mention, Chris. I’d like to make a few 508 comments.
1. I agree that 508 enforcement has been mixed at best. This isn’t GSA’s fault; their role is as coordinator, as part of their larger federal procurement role; for example, GSA convenes meetings of 508 Coordinators from the various departments and agencies. The law says that each agency is responsible for its implementation of 508, and that’s where the enforcement actions, such as complaints and lawsuits, begin.
2. I wouldn’t be so pessimistic about 508 based only on admittedly poor performance in its first incarnation. Everyone should read the DoJ report on 508 (http://www.ada.gov/508/508_Report.htm), issued last fall; and the White House 508 Strategic Plan (http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/procurement/memo/strategic-plan-508-compliance.pdf), which came out this past January. Together they spell out the clearest picture of 508 — the recent past and the path forward. Another point of action is the CIO Council Accessibility Committee, which collects best practices and other resources on 508 — it’s another voice in the conversation, and a particularly well-placed one, as CIOs manage agency ICT and wield the market power. This administration seems aware of the flaws in the past and taking at least formative steps towards improvement.
3. There’s an awful lot of good stuff happening non-federally: states, municipalities, and especially colleges and universities. The opportunities for collaboration across the public sector are pretty awesome.
4. Last but not least, the Rehab Act, home of 508 and other sections pertinent to accessible technology, is being re-authorized. At least a bill has been introduced in the Senate (S. 1356); its future is uncertain. But if you want 508 or anything else changed, you may want to contact your electeds.
Monica Moen says
Thanks for taking the time to write this post. I think you’ve accurately summed up my thoughts and feelings regarding assistive technology right now. You also gave me some hope, something practical I can do. I write well, and I teach. Maybe there are some areas where I can help the NVDA team. For now, JAWS still has to be my primary screenreader because I need Outlook for more than just email. I do use NVDA though, and I can encourage the students where I work to give NVDA a try.
Wil James says
I worked for Freedom Scientific from November 2005 through May 2008. I was let go due to the economy, although the guys in tech support said I was not pulling my weight.
Since then, I have not been able to find a job. I did go back to school and obtain a degree in Criminal Justice, so that is a plus. I do see jobs I can apply for, but like most of your readers, I am up against the barriers of accessibility. Call centers are using remote software and a dumb terminal these days. Unfortunately, this is not workable.
I am still looking for work, but I either do not have the right degree, the potential employer wants a driver’s license, or I fit the build, but nobody contacts me since my work history has a huge gap in it.
My primary screen reader is NVDA. I have not kept up with my JAWS SMA’s since 9.0. That was the last version I was able to use since I got my upgrade to 10 taken away when I was let go by FS. I’m with you on supporting NVDA and Orca!
Travis Roth says
I hope that you pursue the NVDA project. If you do, I was also hoping you may consider documenting your experiences and what you discover? Part of the problem for NVDA (in my opinion) is the difficulty to get into NVDA development. Python is a must and I don’t expect NVDA developers to write a Python guide, there are plenty. But even with the current documentation for NVDA developers, it is difficult for someone coming from a JAWS scripting background to understand how the pieces of NVDA fit together. NVDA can be scripted, and in fact it may even have the most powerful customization tools available, but it is difficult for a NVDA newbie to figure out how to get the job done. I think if there was a NVDA scripting from a JAWS scripting perspective type of document or reference, it may help bring more scripters, if not full-fledged developers, to the project to get more application support.
Casey Mathews says
Travis. I totally agree with you about the Python guide idea. I’ve played with python, and read some guides, but they don’t help much. A lot of what I’ve found is howtos for games, or command line calculators. I’m not a programmer by any stretch, but I understand window classes and the like. So how to take the bit of python I do know and translate that into something NVDA can be happy with is beyond my abilities right now. I’ve looked at some of the add-ons that people have created, but still feel that I’m missing a lot.
Thanks for the thought. I hope that someone with more programming ability can help get something like this going.
WHile I agree that freedomscientific has virtually gone down the tubes, and I have not paid for an SMA since JAWS 12, I do think that at least One IT company and NVDA are excellent choices. HOwever, I have seen as I am a mack user VOiceOver make some improvements at least to what I do on a daily bases. Would it possible for you to explain in more detail how Voiceover is failing? I am also an advocate for the blind, and I do contract work at pelissippi state as the assistive technology trainer. Thanks for your time and understanding.
Great article , since work started paying for my Jaws SMA I started a monthly 10 buck donation Every little helps
Chris this is another great post. I’m totally with you on the NVDA thing. When I first read about it in Dean Martineau’s excellent “Top Tech Tidbits for Thursday,” I thought it was more or less a scam. Not that Dean can’t be trusted with the information he sends out. I don’t know him in person but I’ve been a subscriber of his I think pretty much since he started sending out the newsletter, and it has always been packed with useful information. I started using NVDA for only minor things but it has since grown on me, and now I use it pretty much all the time when I’m on the computer. I suppose that’s not saying much because I’m on the computer virtually all day. The only times I’m on the computer not using NVDA are when I’m using System Access to Go or SAMNet. I used to have a copy of SA installed on this desktop machine, but uninstalled it not long ago in an attempt to solve some technical problems I’ve been having. But anyway, I’ve told a few people about these low-cost, no-cost screen readers. But it seems very few of them have caught on yet. I have a sister who is visually impaired and is using JAWS 11.0 on a desktop machine running Windows Xp. She’s been experiencing some problems and I’ve tried to help her out as best I can. As a matter of fact I got a call just this morning from her and a tutor who has just started working with her. They needed help with Facebook. This sister lives with our parents, and as wonderful as they are they aren’t that adept with all this advanced technology. What’s more, their schedules are so busy that they can hardly find time to work on these problems. We live in Illinois, which in many respects is very backwards in terms of state-run services for people with disabilities. We’ve tried going through the VR system, but they don’t return phone calls and have other issues facing them. Once something gets figured out about my laptop, I think I might try to perhaps write a VR supervisor here regarding some of these issues, if I can even reach one. It’s honestly tough though when you live in a state with this quality of services. We’ve got Hadley Central right here, and they might also have some answers as they did for me back when I was still learning JAWS. But regarding SA and NVDA, I don’t think Hadley has implemented them in their courses. I need to go back and check the situation out though. The Guild for the Blind, now Second Sense, says on their website that they offer NVDA training, but I’m rather skeptical of that.
Mike Moore says
As the accessibility coordinator of a state rehabilitation agency that employs over 100 staff who depend on screen reading software to do their jobs I have definitely seen the impact of declining accessibility in professional software programs. I personally feel that in addition to the issues that you raised with the AT and professional software vendors a key problem has been the reliance on 508 as a standard. Compliance with 508 is simply not sufficient to support accessibility in modern applications. The access board needs to complete adoption of WGAG 2.0 AA to give those of us charged with evaluating and monitoring compliance for contracted software and applications a measuring stick that when followed will result in much better accessibility
Greg Kearney says
As far as professional applications (Word, Access, etc.) the issue is not really one of VoiceOver not working it is a matter of Microsoft not producing software compatible with the OS.
This raises a fundamental point about the VoiceOver environment that differs from Windows screen readers. VoiceOver is part of the operating system it is the obligation of the software to be compatible with the OS not the OS to be compatible with the software. This is a fundamental difference when approaching a screen reader which is part of the OS and not an addition to the OS as is the case in the Windows environment.
I will not that I personally told Microsoft about the issues with the office applications when it was first found. I was told that it would be addressed. It never has been corrected.
It is certainly true that Microsoft has done little or nothing to provide accessibility to their software on Macintosh. They are not, however, the only professional tools that could be accessible on Macintosh that are not.
To wit: Apple has 100% control over the development of its iWork suite of tools. As Apple controls the source code to these professional paps, to the operating system and to the screen reader, there is no reason they cannot make all of this accessible. While Apple is pathologically secretive about such developments, they clearly implied that iWork accessibility was both possible and in the works but, years after VoiceOver first appeared on OSX, they have stilled failed to provide access to these applications properly.
At the same time, Other professional apps made by Apple, Logic (used in professional recording studios and the like), Xcode (Apple’s primary development environment), Terminal (the built-in terminal emulation program used by hackers like me) and others remain somewhat to entirely inaccessible.
Apple is one company that reports to a single CEO. Unlike Microsoft or Google, Apple’s development teams aren’t fiercely independent but, rather, tow the party line. If Apple’s party line was, “make stuff accessible,” their software, if nothing else from other developers, will be usable by this population.
Lastly, Apple has permitted many new bugs to enter the VoiceOver ecosystem. Safari works far less well with VO than IE or Firefox with NVDA, FireFox with Orca and nearly all other screen reader/browser combinations.
So, yes, it’s Apple’s fault that VO hasn’t professional applications and that it’s quality has deteriorated.
Clare Page says
Hello! I read this article with interest after seeing a link to it on Twitter, and I have to agree that being a blind person definitely makes it harder to get work. Without counting the reluctance of so many employers to take blind people on, which is off topic here, it’s definitely true that many modern programs used in workplaces are not accessible to blind people: to give you an example from my own experience, I hoped to go into call centre work after failing to find a job as a bilingual secretary, but, in spite of promises from the access technology supplier I dealt with in France, where I am resident, it turned out to be impossible to write workable scripts for the software the call centre I hoped to work at used, so I couldn’t even do work experience there, let alone get a longer job contract there. At that time, I was a full-time JAWS user, but when I upgraded to Windows 7 two-and-a-half years ago the JAWS version I had was too old to work with my 64-bit computer, so I’ve been a full-time NVDA user since 2011, and a regular donor to the project for most of that time. I definitely hope that NVDA development will include more and more professional software in the future. I’m not anti-JAWS, but it seems to me that over the last few years they have added more and more new gimmicks to their screenreader, “flexible web” for example, when they could spent their time much better by trying to improve access to as much mainstream software as possible. I am thankful that I have never fallen into deep despair due to not finding a job, in spite of becoming more pessimistic about doing so over the many years of job-hunting I’ve done: however, I hope that, when I do, I’ll have as much access as possible to my employer’s software. IN France it’s not possible to get funding for JAWS unless you’re either doing a course or have a job, so, if I eventually find work, I’ll have the choice between hoping to be able to work with the NVDA I already have or applying for funding for JAWS which will delay me actually starting work, yet another complication of being a blind job-seeker which may be off topic but is still worth mentioning. May things improve for us all some day, that’s all I can say to conclude my long reply!
Tamas Geczy says
I have several thoughts on your article here, and as a tech journalist who has been in the field of reviewing latest softwares since 2005, I do have at least some background to go off of. I’m actually more optimistic than most about accessibility, and currently work at my University with Assistive technologies. I will place my comments as a list to make it easier to organize.
-I don’t see computers being around for more than 5-10 years in the future. While I also don’t think they will go away, my general thought is that as a device, they will only be used by those who need the graphics/performance of a desktop PC. As the professional and personal lives of people continue to meld together, work and jobs will require the use of mobile operating systems. With that said, I do at least see mobile OS taking some aspects of desktop computers. For example, the “desktop” of the future I see will be running Android and more web apps than it will be running Windows. It is clear that Microsoft has made a huge mistake with Windows 8, and with 8.1 they have not improved their path. While the “death of Windows” will be a painful one and might take even a decade if not more to complete, it is coming slowly. It will, however, not cause the “rise of Macintosh.”
-Consequently, people should focus more on the accessibility of web applications than actual physical software. Call me too “progressive” for saying this one, however I feel like not many in the community are speaking out against web accessibility to companies, and it is the only way we will ever get any 508 laws established and turn it into more of a standard.
-We must focus on the future, not the past. By the future, I am speaking 3-5 years ahead. I understand how hard it is to project the technology market, because it is ever changing. I will never claim that what I have stated here will come to light as I have, but rather I like to look at what I see. Steve Jobs was not wrong when he compared the PC to a truck and tablets and mobile computing to cars. Just as we still have plenty of truck drivers, so will we have PC users, however the nerd is a dying breed in a way. Rather, it isn’t that the nerds are going extinct, but rather that the boom of the world having some form of computing Is increasing ten fold every year, to the point where nerds are lost in a greater sea of regular humans. Engineers will always be there to move our world further, but the world is also moved by those regular users who can provide feedback and input.
Joe Orozco says
Thanks for the second installment to what I hope will become a series of sorts. After reading the first post I felt that maybe you were content to list the issues and move on, but here I find that you have not forgotten the motivations that made you the guy you were at FS. I work full-time in government and freelance in the private sector. I have firsthand knowledge of the reality that for every one database or application that is accessible, there are ten more that are not. I am one of those individuals who goes back and forth with developers to try to bring about changes, but I am also limited by my inability to explain exactly what makes a screen inaccessible. Here’s hoping someone can move forward with a common guide we can share with software developers about what tweaks can be implemented.
Regarding NVDA, I have now offered twice to write grants for them. Both offers have gone unanswered. I’m all about doing my own part to support them, but they should be willing to accept the assistance when the assistance is offered. You can’t make development the central core of the business model. Even social enterprises understand the value of incorporating legal, accounting, and marketing into their operations. Focusing entirely on development runs a dangerous risk of developing in a bubble with less regard for the tasks the end user actually requires on the worksite.
I hate that FS is like the evil girlfriend I can’t ditch. I have not given up my SMA. Maybe that makes me an idiot. I understand the value of voting with my dollars, but I also understand the value of my job that generates those dollars. Easy for others to say they’re going to stop supporting FS and settle for the up and coming options. Yet, I need the wider support of JAWS, however limited that support might be, and yes, I see the irony in my own logic. I would be willing to substitute my SMA money to NVDA if there is enough of a critical mass to move that product’s development forward.
Thanks again for stimulating a real dialogue on this issue. I would be willing to start a Windows equivalent to AppleVis, though there are existing sites that could easily accommodate such an endeavor. Still, if no one else does it, I’d take up the challenge of building a platform to launch targeted campaigns to specific developers, all in the name of helping others obtain and keep employment.
Sky Mundell says
Hello Chris, this is a nice artical. I have to agree with you on this post. One thing I will say is that GW Micro now has payment plans so you can buy Window-Eyes on time. To be onnist though, I still use jaws for one thing, and that is for the CakeWalk Sonar program with the CakeTalking scripts, however I have branched into Reaper, so now I can use it with either JAWS, Window-Eyes or NVDA. I support NVDA whole-heartedly, and I would encourage people to give it a try!
Josh Kennedy says
Up until a few days ago I was a fulltime windows and NVDA user. I have since gotten a refurbished laptop and put vinux4 on it. I tried sonar but it didn’t work, the kernel was too new and lacked some important drivers. But suffice it to say that I think that linux with Orca and android with talkback and brltty and brailleback are the future operating systems and screen readers. It disappoints me that if I wanted a computer that I could fully fix myself if something went wrong I would need to buy a mac. But I cannot afford one and probably never will be able to. I was able to get one a few years ago, and quickly put windows7 on it due to the voiceover’s strange keyboard interface and how it does things always interacting with objects and such. I figured it out all right I’m resourceful like that. But I just did not like it plain and simple. It also disappoints me that after all this time and even with windows8 if win8 breaks you need sighted help to reinstall it. Yes they have a restore to factory defaults that is accessible but it could still break that bad that even factory restore from recovery partition may not even be possible. Linux operating systems are the most flexible, most secure. If you want natural voices for them use cepstral with orca or voxin. or run windows xp in vmware because windows xp I think is still the best windows OS that microsoft ever made. And furthermore since I am running vinux4 natively on this laptop I have noticed something else. I think microsoft puts code into windows to intensionally slow down your internet transfer speeds on the particular computer itself. Because now that I use vinux4 with orca with its longterm support up through 2017 I have noticed my internet is so much faster uploading and downloading files. Also browsing the web is so much faster with a linux system its not even funny. I have 2gigs of ram and have firefox, thunderbird, and dropbox open and vmware services in the background and the computer still is not slowing down. I plug in my barcode reader from atguys.com and it just works. scanner? plug it in and it just works with speedy-ocr. and gscan2pdf works good also. if I need more powerful OCR time to run abby finereader in windows xp in vmware. need duxbury? don’t pay for duxbury anymore. get vinux on dvd with libreoffice, go to software center and install java7 . then go to terminal and copy and paste this into it. sudo apt-get install libreoffice-java-common . install that. then go get the odt2braille extension install that and while you’re at it save as daisy extension also. and there you go, libreoffice should now be able to replace duxbury and expensive daisy book makers for most tasks. want to read bookshare books? just install the daisy player from software center. handbrake for ripping dvds works great. oh and if any devs want to help because I am not a developer I need the buttons in the sound themes manager app you can find it on launchpad those buttons are not reading with Orca. Orca just says push button. sound theme manager is a python app that lets you create, edit, and delete sound themes in linux desktop systems. Also people have been asking for beeping progress bars in orca and ability to switch espeak voice variants in orca as well. Yes I think orca nvda and android talkback are the future of access technology.
Josh Kennedy says
I have good news for those of you who need access to quicken files. On my vinux4 system with orca 3.4 I downloaded and installed gnucash. GnuCash is very similar to quicken. In some parts of the app you have to use orca’s review cursor but most of it is accessible if not all of it. At one point the app crashed or orca crashed? I’m not sure which but anyway I just powered off the computer with the power button and gnucash also saved my files my tests I created. I wonder, since vinux4 is becoming so user-friendly along with sonar linux, would there be a market in the blind community for me to start a small business selling refurbished laptops netbooks and desktops with a good user-friendly linux operating system installed onto them? I could to make the transition even easier for a bit more money also include cepstral and voxin voices once licenses are purchased for the particular machine. At this point I would say that for $280 a blind person could get a fully accessible 64bit machine working out of the box. A macLike machine with the ability to install the OS independently without sighted help if something goes wrong, cfh cry for help for remote administration, odt2braille and save as daisy plugins along with a daisy book reader and more. I looked all over. the companies that sell machines with linux preinstalled want $700 or more per computer. most disabled people cannot afford such prices. $300 or so is in most people’s budged I would guess. I’ve been using nothing but linux for the past 5 or so days now trying different apps, most of which I am finding are quite accessible in lots of cases more accessible than their windows counterparts.
I did a search for voc rehab and vinux. nothing came up. I also looked up voc rehab along with nvda training and vinux training, nothing. For some reason the assistive technology industry just trains people on how to use jaws mostly, window-eyes openbook and kurzweil for scanning. and maybe duxbury for braille translation. Why teach duxbury when odt2braille and braille blaster are open source and cost much less sometimes nothing at all. Do they think that if its free it must be no good? Gnucash is good accessible accounting software for vinux and sonar13. I have a friend who uses jaws and is constantly frustrated by windows updates, jaws not coming up sometimes when windows starts up and so on. I hope the AT industry embraces NVDA and orca very soon.
Sky Mundell says
Hello Josh, I have to agree with you about Vocational rehab and altermitive screen readers. I don’t know if they are basing their opinions on priar versions or this or that screen reader or they are just playn bias towards anything other than jaws. This is, unfortunately, an attitude that is held by Vocational Rehabilitation all over the US. for example, back in my school days, JAWS was the screen reader of choice because the school had a lot of budget for buying jaws licences for students. in the 1990’s jaws was the best. However like everything else in life things changed, Slimware window bridge, ASAW and artic vision solo, went out of business. That left us with JAWS, Window-Eyes, and Supernova as the big three screen readers. Supernova and Window-Eyes has gotten better, has drasticly improved, and are equally as good as if not better than jaws in certain areas, but Vocational rehab has not recognized this fact. Unfortunately it seems that Vocational rehab seems to take the position that neither free or low cost screen readers are worthwhile altermitives to Windows and JAWS shich is simply not true. I agree with you on NVDA. It is just as good as the comertial products be it jaws, Supernova, and Window-Eyes.
Sky Mundell says
Josh, if one were to download vinux on a computer that already has windows, will it take away windows off the machine and replace it? for example, I use Windows 7 64 bit desktop, and laptop, and I was wondering if I were to put vinux on it would it destroy windows? just wondering.
This article is very thought provoking. Recently, I switched from Jaws to System Access due to many of the issues discussed above. I personally disagree with the statement that Serotek is not innovative in its product development. In my brief experience with System Access and SAMNET, I have found Serotek focuses on providing practical solutions to more widely encountered problems, such as Facebook inaccessibility. I am sorry to learn they don’t do an equally good job with applications used in employment. No screen reader is perfect, and my method for choosing one is to search for a screen reader which meets the highest number of personal needs the most efficiently. For myself, that screen reader is System Access.
Steve Matzura says
Chris, et al.:
Since forced retirement nine years ago, I’ve proudly been carrying and waving the accessibility banner by doing JAWS and Window-Eyes scripting, and I even went out on a limb to try and learn some Python to maybe come up with something innovative for NVDA. I’m not an ideas person–not a creator, more of an implementer of others’ ideas. Parenthetically, this aspect of me also shows up in my musicianship–can’t compose for spit, but I’ll arrange the hell out of anything you want! My problem is that just about every next big thing I’ve ever thought of, someone else has already done to death, which I suppose proves the old addage about great minds thinking alike. I can just never seem to find the other mind, the one with the way to get the project off the ground. My wife is always teasing me about how I’m a lousy starter but a good finisher once somebody points me in the right direction and provides the initial first thrust. OK readers, don’t go where I know you’re going! LOL!
I’m always trying to train folks in whatever technology I can find that will solve their needs, both immediate and long-term, but I agree with you, Chris, that it’s getting harder and harder to do that. I dearly hope I’ll someday get to be at the right place in the right time to provide something to the access technology user community that will move us all forward in a major way. My heart’s in the right place, my skills are a little on the creaky-rusty side, but that’s easily fixable thee days. If you knew what I had to learn in just the past year in order to construct and implement a server solution for an online audio-streaming service, you’d know where I’m “at,” if you’ll allow the blatant bad English. I’m long on interest and availability, a little short on tools and skills, but am working madly to catch up so I can be of better service to my own community. Reading your two articles has given me a renewed sense of purpose, for which I thank you loudly and longly.