The Greatest Living Blind Hacker

Introduction

I’ve known Tyler Spivey for just over two years. In that time, we’ve hung out on a TeamTalk VOIP channel on a near daily basis. I’ve had the opportunity to watch Tyler work, we’ve talked about nearly any other topic that came into our minds, I’ve grown tremendously fond of Tyler and he is my friend. Thus, be warned in advance, this article is written with this bias built in so do not expect a high level of objectivity.

Over the past 35 years or so, I’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of programmers and have managed dozens of such during that time. I have found that the programmers with whom I’ve worked over the years fall into a number of different categories. Some of these people are serious computer scientists, they’re really good at inventing algorithms to solve hard problems. Another set would be called software engineers and are really good at the process of turning algorithms into functioning bits. The final and my favorite category are the hackers, individuals who look at a goal and then take whatever path they can to reach that goal, even if such a process is not documented or officially sanctioned in any manner.

Tyler Spivey is a hacker’s hacker and this article is about some of the things he has accomplished this year, 2015, alone. I’ve seen a lot of blind programmers work over the years and I’m willing to wager that Tyler, in the first six months of this year, has had one of the most productive runs in the history of blindness and programming.

The Two Definitions Of Hacker

In my recent article “Who Are The Champions?,” I discuss two definitions of the word “champion.” Here, we’ll explore a pair of definitions of the word “hacker” and talk about the spectrum of activities a person who carries that title might do with their time.

In his terrific book, Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution, Stephen Levy tells his readers that the term “hacker” was coined at MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club and was used to describe individuals who did something interesting in the switching system that ran the giant train set. If someone found some electrical parts either at a local electronics junk store like Eli Hefron and Sons, just off the MIT campus in Cambridge or by taking something else apart and repurposing these components to make the train set better, they would receive the title of “hacker.” The role of the Tech Model railroad Club in the history of computing is far too long to describe here but those interested in learning more can find a lot of information about it in a number of books and by googling on it as well.

As many members of the model railroad club at MIT were also hanging around their Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (AI Lab), the word “hacker” followed them and its definition changed from something specific to model trains to a more generic term meaning anyone who does something interesting with technology, especially if what they are doing is exceptionally clever or forces technology to do something for which it was never originally designed. In these labs, “hackers” might be doing something with software, hardware or both. Some were MIT students and employees but most, including the legendary Richard Stallman, would find their way to the lab driven by the desire to play around with cool computers and other interesting gear and arrive without an official position.

As the original hackers moved out of MIT and into jobs doing research, writing software for corporations and governments, teaching at other universities and so on, the word “hacker” followed them but retained its original definition. But, at some point in the late seventies, the media took hold of the word “hacker” and applied a dark and sinister definition to it. If one only hears the media definition, they’d think that all hackers were performing illegal activities as their primary purpose and that the word didn’t apply to the good guys doing interesting things that cause no damage to anyone. The US media has the tendency to ignore reality when the reality is too complicated and decided to label all hackers as outlaws rather than using the original full spectrum definition.

Tyler Spivey is an original definition hacker. He gets an idea and then makes it happen, whether the idea is supposed to be possible or not. Tyler doesn’t allow computer science textbooks or OS documentation to restrict his activities, if he sees a solution, he goes for it, even if said solution would seem entirely out of bounds to the original authors of a program or OS on which he is hacking. Tyler will use every resource available to him to deliver interesting solutions for blind people and, recently, people with unrelated disabilities as well. Tyler is a “true hacker” under Levy’s definition of such and I find myself continuously impressed with his accomplishments.

Tyler Spivey 2015

This year, sill only slightly more than half over, we’ve seen Tyler accomplish a number of really interesting software tasks, some of which are very public and about which you’ve likely already heard but, others, sometimes using very non-standard techniques, that have gotten far less publicity. In each of the cases I describe in this section, though, Tyler has impressed me both with his technical acumen but also with his high level of professionalism, his excellent ability to fit in with a team, his skills working with beta testers and the sheer joy Tyler expresses when he does something very cool.

NVDA Remote Access and QRead 3.0

Two of Tyler’s more publicly notable releases this year are the NVDA Remote Access plug-in for NVDA and QRead 3.0, an excellent book reading program for Windows sold by GetAccessibleApps.com. I’ve written two articles about NVDA RA on this blog earlier this year (one when the crowdfunding campaign started and a second when it had reached its goal in about 36 hours) so I won’t repeat myself here. On QRead 3.0, Tyler added a number of new features and fixed a bunch of old bugs making it the best QRead to date.

“Tyler is the best debugger I’ve ever known,” says Christopher “Q” Toth, leader of GetAccessibleApps.com. “Tyler views things differently, he looks at the symptoms, the manifestation of a bug and can drill down rapidly into the code and get it fixed faster than anyone else we know.”

Another of Tyler’s more impressive skills that I observed on the Remote Access project and, last year, when he released 3MT Reader was his terrific ability to interact with product beta testers, get the information he needed, fix a bug and get the software back to the testers for verification. Glen Gordon, the primary hacker on JAWS and one of the greatest blind hackers with whom I’ve ever had the opportunity to work, would never hang out on an actual beta mailing list with the testers nor would most other programmers in this space as doing so requires a combination of both technical skills but also a terrific amount of patience and Tyler demonstrates both in a highly productive manner.

Pokemon Crystal

Readers old enough to remember the nineties may recall the popular Nintendo GameBoy handheld gaming device and the popular Pokemon game that a lot of sighted kids enjoyed back then. Like many blind people who grew up in the nineties, Tyler had always wished he could play the game and, this year, he made that possible and a bunch of blind people are enjoying playing his version of the game today.

Continuing on what Toth said about Tyler in the previous section, Tyler got the old Nintendo GameBoy Pokemon game accessible not through simple programming skills but, rather, through an advanced understanding of how to get useful information out of a programmed called a “debugger” so he could make the software talk.

What Tyler did to make the Pokemon game work for a blind player is simply incredible. He started by downloading an off-the-shelf GameBoy simulator program for Windows. He then loaded in the Pokemon game into the simulator and loaded the simulator into a debugger and started hacking. His first course of action was to search through the RAM in the GameBoy simulator to find a specific bit of text that he knew appeared on the screen. When he found the text, he knew he was looking at the video memory and he was able then to calculate offsets to build a map of the other objects on the GameBoy screen. From there, Tyler wrote code that would describe the action taking place in the game in a manner that a blind person could interact with well enough to play. After about two weeks of part time hacking, Tyler released his game to other blind people and, as it’s FLOSS, has already received further enhancements contributed by other blind programmers from around the world.

For those readers who may not understand the implications of what Tyler did to get his Pokemon game working, I can summarize it by saying that Tyler wrote what amounts to a single purpose DOS screen reader in a day or two and then extended it to describe a very visual experience well enough for a blind person to enjoy using. For those more technical and old enough to remember DOS assembly language hacking, Tyler effectively found the equivalent of the DOS B000 segment and was able to write code that, in real time, builds something of an off screen model to give blind players a rich gaming experience.

You can check out Tyler’s Pokemon game on his AllInAccess site.

YASR and e-speak for Macintosh

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When Tyler gets bored, amazing things happen. Over the past few months, Tyler, having heard stories that the command line (Terminal app) on Macintosh wasn’t as accessible as one might want it to be so he did some googling and found an old screen reader called YASR, a command line screen reader written years ago for UNIX systems. His research also showed that at least one other hacker had tried to port it to Macintosh but had given up. Tyler found the emacspeak speech server for Macintosh and used it to get YASR compiling and talking on OS X in a single day. Often, the sign of a great hacker isn’t the number of lines of code he generates but, rather, how he uses existing pieces of technology to affect an outcome and Tyler is one of the best at assembling existing technologies into something purposeful.

Recently, one of our 3 Mouse Technology clients bought Tyler a completely tricked out Macbook Pro in order that he could more efficiently work on projects for both Macintosh and iOS. I think that the single most controversial and personally held opinions in the world of blindness aren’t the “hot topics” of the day but, rather, the answer to the question, “what’s your favorite speech synthesizer?”

Personally, because most of what I do is write, I really like the Alex voice on Apple products because, to my ear at least, Alex does better than any other synthesizer I’ve heard at preserving the metrics, the rhythm of the English language and, as one who enjoys writing long sentences that contain subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses, Alex makes it all sound natural. Tyler, however, finds all of the extra pauses and timing related features of the Alex voice to simply take longer than necessary and prefers a synthesizer like Eloquence or espeak that, in spite of sounding a bit robotic, work much better at faster speech rates.

Once again, Tyler did some googling, found that someone else had tried to port espeak to Macintosh in a manner that it could be used with VoiceOver but had abandoned the project. Tyler had it compiled and talking, albeit not perfectly, in about one day of part time effort.

At this stage of their development, neither Tyler’s YASR nor his espeak are yet available of public consumption. He hasn’t fully tested his YASR for Macintosh and his espeak needs some major refactoring to get it working properly with VoiceOver. But, I include both here as, while you can’t see them yet, we’re talking about two days of Tyler’s time to get these programs as close to being fully usable, an amazingly compressed schedule for even a proof of concept.

Tyler The Contractor

On top of doing NVDA RA, QRead 3 and the hobby hacking projects described above, Tyler Spivey has been doing a terrific job as a contractor for 3MT. His projects include both testing web sites for accessibility against standards and guidelines using a number of different screen readers and writing up reports with remediation suggestions for the clients and, most recently, doing some very interesting tasks that repurpose an off-the-shelf hardware device to be used with great value for people with a set of disabilities entirely unrelated to blindness.

The 3MT clients who’ve worked with Tyler all give him very high reviews and are eager to work with him again in the future. 3MT will provide references from these clients if you contact us about doing some contract work with Tyler or any of the others on our team.

Conclusions

As I wrote in “Who Are The Champions?” I think we should be cautious when crowning “champions” and tossing around superlatives. Thus, when I refer to Tyler as “The Greatest Living Blind Hacker,” I do so both with the bias I state in the introduction but with this laundry list of accomplishments done all within a six month period. I’d love to hear the names and stories of other blind hackers doing amazing things as, while I know Tyler personally, it’s easy for small, single person efforts to avoid my radar. For now, at least, given the five projects plus consulting I describe above, I can’t imagine any other blind geek has had such an incredibly productive year and I cannot remember any having such a great year ever before.

Deque Opens Up

Introduction

When it comes to accessibility, I live in a world of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, based both in objective measures and in my own use cases, I am compelled to admit that, as of this writing, Apple, especially on iOS, is the “best” provider of out-of-the-box accessibility. At the same time, as I wrote in an article last autumn called “Apple, The Company I Hate To Love, Part 1: My Long History Fighting Apple,” one can see that I have taken concrete action involving them and their pathological approach to intellectual property law. As an accessibility advocate, Apple makes me very happy; as an advocate on issues of intellectual freedoms, Apple is one of the worst in the business. Personally, I place a higher value on universal accessibility than I do on software related freedoms so feel comfortable crowning Apple “champion” as, today, on accessibility, they are number one.

But each time I say something nice about Apple regarding accessibility, I feel a bit of mental angst as, by endorsing Apple on accessibility, I’m also endorsing them as a company where their track record ranges from poor to middling. This year, as I wrote in “Anarchy, Leadership and NVDA,” we are witnessing a surge in successful free and no cost (FLOSS) software projects, mostly coming from little teams who see a problem and take action to solve the problem. NVDA has been at the core of these developments, until very recently.

Deque Systems is not a small player, in fact, with roughly 100 employees, Deque is probably the single largest accessibility contract business on Earth. While Deque gives an annual contribution to the NVAccess Foundation (makers of NVDA), their free software announcement is unrelated to my favorite Windows screen reader.

What Did Deque Release?

In preparation for this article, I spent a half hour on the phone with Preety Kumar, who, in addition to being the lead person at Deque Systems, has also been a friend of mine going back to the days when Deque was a tiny operation running mostly out of Preety’s house and I was VP/Software Engineering at Freedom Scientific. After speaking with Preety, I went to the Deque web site and read whatever I could find about this important development.

Deque Systems has released its Axe automated testing engine as a free and open source module that others can use as a stand alone testing tool or build into their web apps, CMS or other open source technologies. Deque released Axe using the Mozilla Public License (MPL) which is compatible with both tremendously permissive FLOSS licenses like MIT and BSD while also maintaining compatibility with GPL and other CopyLeft ones as well. “We chose the license to ensure compatibility with as many other open source tools as possible,” said Preety Kumar during our conversation.

It’s About The Rules

I asked Preety why Deque made this historical decision and, somewhat cynically, suggested that they may have been feeling heat from Karl Groves’ and his Tenon no cost testing tool or any of the myriad other web testing tools now on the market. I don’t mean to single out Karl here but, rather, I’m using him and his automated test tool as an example because it’s incredibly highly rated and is often recommended as a no cost way to get aspects of a web site tested for accessibility that are compatible with an automated process. Thus, I include Karl only because his software is an example of the very best available today. If one googles on “automated web accessibility test tool,” they’ll be presented with literally dozens of results, some to excellent tools from top accessibility companies while also finding a lot of items from companies that do not seem to participate in the discussion on accessibility and may be fly by night operations.

Preety’s response, “Competition is always an issue and we intend to continue competing in the tools arena but our true motivation was to try to find a way that accessibility testing tools could all be working with the same set of rules,” was an impressive answer.

“The problem,” continued Preety, “is that a web developer today might try two or three different testing tools and get three different sets of results. This developer may then conclude that accessibility is such an immature industry that we can’t even get our standards, guidelines, best practices and so on harmonized well enough to provide a consistent set of test results.”

With this development from Deque, anyone with the skills to read code can take a look at the rules that the tool is following and, unlike the closed source, proprietary competitor products, be able to understand precisely what is a real result from the tool and what might be a bug in the tool itself. All software I use has some bugs so we can assume that all web testing tools have such too. If, at the very least, we can harmonize on the rules used to test web sites for accessibility, we’ll have taken a step forward both in helping web developers make their sites accessible but, also, we’d be making our entire industry appear to play from the same sheet of music.

The Future For Axe

Preety added, “At this point, we really don’t know what to expect.” Which also describes my opinion of the future of this technology. Will the others follow suit and open up their tools as well? I certainly hope so.

In the time since Deque announced that it was releasing it’s accessibility testing tool as open source, our friends at WordPress Foundation have started discussing integrating Axe into its core testing facility. If this happens, WordPress will be the first of the popular CMS (Drupal and Joomla being the other two) to include accessibility test results in its standard report to all WordPress users. Obviously, WP users can choose to ignore these test results but, simply by having them present, some users may follow the accessibility rules who might not have done so otherwise. I don’t know if this is actually going to happen, the WPF people need to talk to the Deque people and, while I was able to make the introduction between a friend on the WPF accessibility team and Deque itself, I can’t speak for either group but they are talking to each other already about tis exciting possibility.

Conclusions

Free, libre open source software (FLOSS) is the only way we, as consumers of accessible technology, can take full control of our destinies. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how happy the Deque decision makes me and how much I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a trend. NVDA Remote Access demonstrated that, indeed, programmers can make a fair level of compensation for working on a GPL 2 based NVDA plug-in; Deque is demonstrating that releasing its software under a FLOSS license will both help its consulting business while also giving the entire community a system on which we can participate in building a truly terrific automated accessibility test platform.

Please do, if you make software for people with disabilities, consider opening up your code as well. By doing so, you will be benefiting both the community of access technology users but all of those who want to ensure compatibility with your software and for those with the skills to make it better.

Who Are The Champions?

Introduction

As I sit here typing this story in San Francisco, I hear two voices playing in my head. The first, as the title might imply, is the voice of the late great Freddy Mercury singing his anthemic , “We Are The Champions.” While, by the late seventies, I had sold my soul to punk and CBGB became my cathedral, Queen remained one of my favorite rock acts and I took every opportunity I could to see them perform when they came to New York, my then home.

The second voice is that of Jerry Garcia singing the line, “Nothing shaking down on Shakedown Street.” While I enjoyed the party atmosphere at the many Grateful Dead shows I attended, I must admit to having never been much of a fan of their music. “Shakedown Street” wasn’t one of their more memorable records but, when I look at the sponsors list for the 2015 NFB convention, I hear Jerry singing that line loudly and repeatedly.

This article will simply list a number of the corporate sponsors of the two conventions that many blind people will attend this week and discuss their records on accessibility. I will also explore the terms used by NFB especially regarding one company with a terrible history of delivering accessible products to the market and, in general, will focus more on NFB than ACB as having read both sponsor lists, there’s only one ACB sponsor that I know to have a poor record on accessibility. I must also admit that there are companies on both the ACB and NFB sponsor lists about which I know absolutely nothing so will reserve comment on those organizations as I’m too lazy to look them all up.

The Definitions Of “Champion”

When I lost the last of my vision, nobody told me that screen readers existed so I made a really crappy one for myself on Macintosh and enrolled at Harvard University to study English with a focus on creative writing. Ted Henter called and offered me the top job on the software side of Henter-Joyce so I dropped out of the program and moved to Florida to take the lead on JAWS. I still have a passion for the English language and the words we use to describe different things in it. I’m a pretty hardcore word nerd and understand that the word “champion” has two definitions.

The first and by far the most common definition of the word tends to be a noun that means “winner.” The San Francisco Giants are the reigning champions of baseball because they won the 2014 World Series. Mohammad Ali became the world’s boxing champion when he defeated the reigning one. This is the definition about which Freddy was singing and is the definition we use in most common speaking and writing.

The second definition of “champion” means one who promotes a cause. I’ve a friend who is a member of the British Parliament whose primary cause is pedestrian safety. She is a “champion of traffic related accessibility” but neither she alone nor her party can get the entire UK to accept her proposals. So, my friend, using the verb form of this definition, “champions accessibility” and tries to be an agent for change but, as she would admit herself, she is not yet a “winner” on this cause.

If one googles on “NFB convention 2015 sponsors,” they will see that Google is listed on the NFB web site as “accessibility champions” and, for ACB, Google is a “Diamond Level” sponsor. I’ll accept that “diamond” can simply mean “expensive” which is an honest description of what Google does regarding accessibility, they pay a lot of money to be prominently featured at the ACB convention. Using the term “accessibility champion” to describe Google boggles the mind when we apply the first and more common definition of the word “champion” as, from my own testing and that of many others, Google has zero devices, applications or web properties that carry their brand name that are 100% accessible, a sharp contrast to Apple who, especially on iOS, has nearly zero accessibility defects in apps bearing its brand name. How then can NFB apply the word “champion” to Google?

This leads us to definition number two: even I, a noted critic of Google’s accessibility, will admit that Google does “champion” accessibility. They certainly spend a lot of time and money attending conferences like CSUN and the NFB and ACB summer conventions. They even announced a $30 million fund to promote accessibility research at non-profit centers. What they fail at doing, even using the less common definition of the word “champion,” is to actually produce anything that is accessible from end to end. They are very good at talking about accessibility and tossing around the bucks but, if they can’t make their own products accessible, do they have any credibility when they tell others to do so?

Money Talks, Accessibility Walks

ACB and NFB will be featuring Google prominently at their conventions while their membership are mostly using Apple devices, a company that NFB takes any opportunity to slam. If I had my way, Google would not spend a penny on coming to conferences and conventions only to toss a spectacular party and tell people what they may do in the future. I’d recommend that Google take the money they use to build a smoke screen of support for accessibility and instead spend it on programmers and quality assurance engineers in their accessibility department. When they’re mostly done with the job, then come to the conventions and show us something interesting and fully accessible that exists in the present instead of telling us more about an uncertain and, given their track record, improbable future.

That NFB allows Google to carry the title “Accessibility Champion” is profoundly misleading and, given the marketshare numbers, also entirely false. My challenge to my friends who remain members of NFB is to ask the following question of everyone they see at the convention, “What mobile devices do you use daily?” I will wager that more than 75% will be using an iOS device with the rest either still carrying an old Symbian phone running Talx and a handful of fanatics carrying an Android device. NFB has crowned Google “the champion” while the vast majority of their own membership ignores them and buys the truly accessible solutions instead. Ask the same question at ACB and I predict similar results.

Next, ask whether they have an AppleTV, a Macintosh, a Windows machine or even the impressively accessible FireFox OS phone. Ask if they use anything Google other than the search engine and, again, I’ll wager that you will be hard pressed to find anyone there who uses such. NFB and ACB are not just promoting poor accessibility, their leadership is entirely out of step with the hearts, minds and wallets of their membership. Apple stuff is expensive but it appears, based on published market numbers, to hold an enormous lead over all other operating environments on mobile devices. If anyone is the “accessibility champion,” using the more common definition of the word, it’s Apple, they are winning in the market and doing so by enormous margins.

The NFB Sponsors

After going to the NFB web site and reading the names of its sponsors, I identified a number who aren’t just bad actors on the accessibility stage but, rather, also seem antagonistic to the cause. I read the entire list of ACB convention sponsors as well and, with them, only Google stood out as an accessibility bad guy. At the same time, I’m very willing to bet that NFB raised much more money by sleeping with the enemy.

Google

If you need more than I wrote above for why neither of the major advocacy organizations should allow Google to even present, let alone carry a title like “Diamond” or “Accessibility Champion,” all I ask is that you sit down with an iOS device and an Android one. Do something very simple, count the number of inaccessible things you find, count the number of accessible things you find, divide the latter by the former and you get a score. The Giants won the World Series by scoring more runs in four of the games than did the Kansas City Royals; let’s crown accessibility champions with an objective measure as well.

To be perfectly clear, I think Google may be on the right track regarding accessibility. Hiring Victor Tsaran on the engineering side of the effort spoke volumes to me as he’s a guy with a long history of actually making things accessible at big corporations. The $30 million fund to promote accessibility research is a wonderful thing and I’m very happy to see Google investing so much in this area.

Google isn’t as bad as it was a year ago and it deserves credit for its progress but, as it sits in third or fourth place in any quantitative analysis of accessibility of its actual products, it’s years from being a definition one champion.

Uber

I know a lot of blind people who enjoy Uber and I don’t fault them for using the service. But, for NFB to permit a company to enjoy the publicity that one can derive from sponsoring an NFB convention, they might first check if that company is trying to defend itself in an ADA lawsuit involving blind people. Uber, unlike Lyft (also an NFB convention sponsor that I’ll talk about later in this piece) refuses to have a zero tolerance policy regarding service animals, including guide dogs. As I’m a guide dog handler, I won’t even install the Uber app as I don’t know whether or not some asshole driver will simply ditch me and, as Uber has no process for filing complaints about this offense, they are agents of discrimination.. But, it’s NFB, where no one really cares much about we guide dog people.

If, as a blind individual who isn’t a guide dog handler, you make a personal decision to use their service, I’ve no problem with your choice. Uber is very convenient and I’m told it’s less expensive than Lyft, its primary competitor. For NFB, a nationally recognized organization, to allow a company with this black spot on their record who continues to refuse to simply change a policy to require their drivers to accept my dog and I to use their service is further evidence of the prostitution of the National Federation of the Blind. I don’t think that allowing such an endorsement is anything more than a cynical grab for cash and it makes NFB appear terribly inconsistent in a very public manner.

Oracle

Many years ago, Peter Korn and Marney Beard together built what, to this day, I think was the strongest and most talented accessibility engineering team ever. They did this at Sun Microsystems, before Oracle acquired that company. Oracle’s first act involving accessibility was to give Peter a promotion while, simultaneously, either laying off or reassigning the rest of the team, leaving Peter with a nice title and nearly zero resources to do the actual work. Oracle has not recovered in accessibility in the time since.

At CSUN this year, an Oracle presentation suggested that a blind person in a job should not only know how to do their job properly but also be experts in using a screen reader and, on top of that, be able to report accessibility bugs in the software they’re trying to use to do their jobs. After the session, I asked the Oracle accessibility manager the question, “Are you really expecting a blind call center employee earning $8.25 per hour to be able to do jQuery accessibility call outs?” He said, “Yes.” I asked, “Where on Earth is someone earning eight and a quarter per hour with such skills?” He said, “We have them working of us at Oracle in our call centers.” I can’t recall what I said next as my brain was exploding. What I wish I had said was, “If you have blind people working for eight dollars and twenty five cents per hour who can do jQuery accessibility call outs, please ask them to call me as I’ll pay them no less than $40 per hour to do this kind of work for our clients.” In fact, if you’re a blind person out there with these skills and you’re only earning minimum wage doing something else, please send your resume to 3 Mouse Technology (3MT), Prime Access Consulting (PAC), SSB/Bart, Deque Systems, TPG, WebAIM or any of the other accessibility remediation contract services companies in the business and I promise that one of these groups will find you to be a compelling candidate for a much higher paying job with a promising future.

Blind people already need to work harder than their sighted peers. It’s more difficult for us to get to work in most parts of the world, we need to learn the screen reader commands on top of the applications we need to use to do our jobs and, even then, using a screen reader to access information remains far less efficient than using the same application visually. Now, Oracle is saying that, on top of the other hassles that come with being blind and holding a full time job that all of us should also be highly qualified accessibility quality assurance engineers.

My conversation with this gentleman continued. I said, “Oracle and its subsidiaries have a horrible record regarding publishing accessible software.” His response, “Products need to ship, we need to make money, we can’t slip the ship dates.” Which, in brief can be translated as, “Oracle says, ‘Money talks, accessibility walks.

Worse, though, suggesting that accessibility slows down product releases is entirely fallacious. Building accessibility is not a burden, it’s an alternative implementation strategy that actually benefits developers in a myriad of ways in the long run. Having such a strategy would benefit Oracle greatly but they have strange priorities I guess.’

Any Good Guys In The Mix?

Not all of the NFB sponsors are accessibility bad guys. In this section, I’ll highlight some of the good guys on the NFB sponsor list. Excepting the NVAccess Foundation, I don’t think any business or organization is a perfect example of how accessibility should be done but those I mention in this section do better than most and I’m happy to see them featured at the NFB convention.

Target

As I wrote in my CSUN 2015 report, Target, after settling its lawsuit with NFB has taken accessibility research to a higher level than I’ve ever seen from a major company. In brief, Target is doing user experience (UX) and usability testing of their branded technologies to ensure an efficient experience for users with disabilities in the future. While the Target web site isn’t ideally accessible, it’s pretty darn good and I’m glad to see that they’re working in a solid way to affect these changes across their company.

Dropbox

I use Dropbox daily. Most of my blind friends do so as well. Unlike the peculiar interfaces for other cloud services, Dropbox acts like just another folder on your system and is entirely accessible on one’s local system. Dropbox has accessibility problems on their web site and I hope they get such fixed as soon as possible but, compared to anything from Google, the guys at Dropbox get things mostly right.

My friend and President of Prime Access consulting, Sina Bahram, has an insider perspective on accessibility at Dropbox and said, “in their most recent IOS app update, Dropbox dedicated 100% of the update and their changelog for it to accessibility. This is a super classy move by a prominent technology company. My kudos to the various Dropbox teams who work on improving accessibility on a daily basis.”

Freedom Scientific

Any regular reader of this blog or my BlindConfidential one before it, knows that I’m a vocal critic of Freedom Scientific for many different reasons. For some blind people, though, JAWS remains the only screen reader they can use to access some things they need to do their job. There’s an enormous body of JAWS scripts written at job sites around the world to support oddball proprietary software used only at that single company. If JAWS were to disappear tomorrow, a lot of blind people would lose their livelihoods and, for this reason alone, I put FS into the good guys column in this discussion.

Humanware

Like FS, Humanware makes technology that a lot of blind people enjoy using. Unlike FS, I haven’t a lot of perspective into how they do things but have a generally good opinion of them. I think blind ghetto products are vastly too expensive and wish that we could enjoy the mainstream economies of scale but, for some blind people, a proprietary notetaker provides a solution they enjoy more than off-the-shelf products and I’m happy that Humanware serves this sub-population well.

Lyft

As I mention above, I have a big problem with Uber for its lack of a zero tolerance policy regarding refusing service animals. Lyft is exactly the opposite, if one driver refuses one blind person with one dog a ride once, he or she will be fired immediately. Lyft has similar policies regarding sexual harassment of its passengers by drivers and prides itself on being the “friendly ride sharing service.” As I’ve a dog, I won’t even install the Uber app as, having been ditched by taxi drivers who were ostensibly regulated by local ordinances, I will not subject myself to getting ditched by an unregulated system that seems to refuse to regulate itself. I like Lyft and don’t mind spending a few extra bucks where it is more expensive than Uber.

One friend of mine to whom I spoke before writing this piece said, “Think of Uber as Microsoft in the bad old days and Lyft as Apple. Uber only cares about growth and global domination while Lyft is willing to grow more slowly and focus on customer experience.

The Apple Strategy?

As I wrote in “The Hands That Feed” and in other articles since, NFB has a bizarre and pathological stance regarding Apple. Most recently, NFB published an article by a sighted employee of their’s who tried to use VoiceOver on iOS for 40 days. Her conclusions were that the experience for a blind person isn’t as nice as it is for a sighted person. On its own, this sentence is entirely true but, in the absence of context, it’s entirely fallacious. If the author spent 40 days with an iOS device, 40 days with an Android device, 40 days with FireFox OS, 40 days with Windows and so on and wrote up her conclusions in context, the sentence might have instead read, “There’s no system on any major platform in which a blind person enjoys as rich an experience as do sighted users of the same but iOS comes closer than any other.” So, while her first conclusions are true, out of context, they are simply meaningless. I’d love perfect accessibility on all platforms but, as of today, accessibility isn’t perfect anywhere but Apple, on iOS, comes closer than any other team has ever come to providing 100% accessibility out-of-the-box.

It’s clear to everyone watching that Apple can afford to buy the “accessibility champion” title from NFB as it’s obviously for sale and Apple isn’t wanting for cash. They could be a sponsor at any other level as well. Apple instead chooses to simply ignore NFB and they’ve won the marketshare battles among blind users. If Apple, the leader in out-of-the-box accessibility refuses to engage with NFB, is NFB relevant in any substantive manner on issues regarding technological accessibility? NFB continues to snipe at Apple but Apple, while refusing to bend over for the biggest advocacy organization representing our population, has demonstrated that NFB is little more than a straw dog.

One person highly placed in corporate accessibility, under conditions of anonymity, said, “NFB is like the North Korea of accessibility; they’re dangerous enough that you need to keep an eye on them but, on any global scale, they’re irrelevant.” This seems to be the Apple attitude as well, make the best accessibility you can, let the NFB piss and moan that you don’t pay them their patronage but, in the long run, win the hearts and minds of our community. One becomes “champion” by delivering excellent products with excellent accessibility, not by paying off the NFB.

Conclusions

This article pretty well summarizes itself, what can we conclude other than the NFB is a cynical and money hungry organization willing to sleep with the enemy. The NFB, by allowing organizations with horrific records on accessibility to even be present demonstrates that, once again, NFB is saying, “Money talks, accessibility walks.”

If I was going to crown an accessibility champion for 2015, I would be torn between a number of excellent choices. I might start with Christopher “Q” Toth and Tyler Spivey for delivering the free and open source NVDA Remote Access plug-in funded entirely by community donations. I would definitely include my good friend Sina Bahram for his work making MathPlayer accessible with NVDA. I would include Marco Zehe and the accessibility team at Mozilla Foundation for their excellent effort on FireFox OS. I’d include my friend Howard Kaplan for building a low vision oriented book reading app called SpotlightText based in the actual science of retina disorders rather than just picking the most popular features from those that already exist. I’d include the NVAccess Foundation for its continued commitment to free and open source accessibility. I’d include the Apple accessibility team for fixing a lot of the VoiceOver related bugs in more recent iOS updates. I might even include Freedom Scientific for its offering JAWS at a reasonable price during the NFB convention.

Perhaps we shouldn’t crown a champion at all, instead, let’s call it an all star team on which all of those I mention in the previous paragraph would be included. Please, add your favorite accessibility all-stars in the comments section. I’d love to hear some more stories about the good guys in this game.

I would not, however, include Google, Uber, Oracle or the other bad actors that NFB is willing to sleep with. Maybe I’m too much of a purist, maybe I ask for too much but, as the good guys are already delivering excellent solutions today, why celebrate companies like Google and Oracle who, while having enough money to do anything they choose, choose not to do accessibility properly?

Apple’s Super Secret New Product

Forward

This article was written by contributing editor Gonz Blinko. From time to time, Gonz, with whom I rarely spend any time anymore, still sends me an article for publication here. I received this one from him this morning and found it interesting, informative and, as always is the case when Gonz writes a piece here, entertaining.

Introduction

After weeks of investigation, talking to, getting drunk and pumping Apple employees for information, my friend Bryan Smart and I have gotten our hands onto a prototype model of the next great innovation coming from Apple. Like the Nike shoe iPhone app and a bunch of the biometric information collected by the AppleWatch, this next iPhone add-on gadget is designed to monitor health related information in a manner never previously seen as necessary for the millions of people who will plunk down the hefty pile of bucks to get their hands on this latest in Apple’s line of boutique products.

Welcome the iTurd

Are you getting enough fiber in your diet? Are you eating the right proportions of vitamins and minerals? Are you carrying potentially dangerous bacteria? I’m sure you all ask these questions every day and, coming this autumn as Apple releases the iPhone 6S and it’s standard Fall line of fashionable technology, you will have all of these answers and more if you run over to the Apple store and buy yourself an iTurd.

An Apple marketing professional, under conditions of anonymity, told us, “Sure, e-toilets already exist, as do medical testing laboratories but this product will revolutionize how we defecate, urinate and vomit forever. And, unlike the Amazon TurdFire or the Mozilla Foundation’s TurdBird, the iTurd integrates seamlessly with all of your iCloud enabled devices providing the most tightly integrated bathroom experience possible. We called the AppleWatch, “the most personal product ever,” I think we’ve eclipsed that success with our new iTurd.” ” ”

What Is the iTurd?

Those of you around my age (55) and older will probably remember the Ty-D-Bowl television commercial that featured a tiny man riding around in a little boat in one’s toilet tank keeping it clean, well, as the AppleWatch is to the Dick Tracy “video watch” from the comic strips a half century ago, what the iTurd does is far greater. An iTurd keeps your toilet clean while performing astounding other tasks unimagined even in the science fiction of my youth. our Apple marketing source claimed, “the iTurd provides a visit to the toilet with a near magical level, it’s like pooping at Disneyland. The iTurd will make your bowel movements more pleasurable than you may have ever thought possible and much more pleasant than you are already enjoying today.”

What Does the iTurd Look Like?

An iTurd is “sausage shaped” according to the Apple marketing materials but, as I hold mine in my hand, I might say it’s actually “turd shaped” with a few added features. Imagine a shit shaped submarine about three and a half inches long and you have an iTurd in your grasp.

How Does The iTurd Work?

Once charged and paired with one’s iCloud account, a user simply drops the iTurd into their toilet bowl and allows it to swim around doing its thing. When the toilet is not in use, the iTurd cruises around the edges scraping whatever collected detritus away, keeping your bowl clean enough for Rover to drink from safely. The iTurd uses only organic citrus generated cleaning fluids in cleansing mode so is eco-friendly as well.

Butt, There’s More…

We’ve had all sorts of products for keeping toilets clean so what has Apple added to make the iTurd into such an exciting and innovative product? In a single word, it’s: health-informatics. When your toilet is in use, which is to say you are urinating, moving your bowels or vomiting into it, the iTurd turns from a highly convenient cleaning product into a tiny submarine biological laboratory.

Within seconds of your first bit of poop or few grams of pee or puke hitting the surface of the water in your toilet, the iTurd mode changes and, after performing chemical analysis on both the fluids and solids in the bowl, sends your iPhone or other iCloud connected device more than 1500 separate data points derived from the nano-chemistry performed in this remarkable machine. By the time your done wiping your ass, your iPad or other iCloud connected device will be able to tell you everything from your blood sugar level to the incredibly important “roughage ratio,” information essential to your long term health and life expectancy. Plain and simply, having an iTurd in your bowl will help you live a longer and happier life.

What About Micro Organisms?

To date, modern medical science has identified tens of thousands of different bacteria, viruses, prions and other microscopic organisms that can lead to profound health problems and, in some cases, even death. With an iTurd, you will know immediately if any of more than 500 of the most common disease bearing micro-organisms are festering in your bowels and, being alerted to such early in the process means that you can get medical treatment during the incubation process, well before you would otherwise start to show symptoms of the disease itself. In this sense, you can consider the iTurd to be a fire alarm for ebola, small pox, polio and literally thousands of other little buggers that can maim or kill you.

Ever Worry About That Random Drug Test?

Did you go to the Pink Floyd reunion concert and sit too near an old hippy smoking a joint? Did you accidentally pop a few OXY Codone tablets thinking they were your morning vitamins? No problem, the iTurd will detect the fifteen most popular recreational drugs and report on them to you so you can arrive at work prepared for the worst.

Think You Might Be Pregnant?

If you’ve an iTurd in your bowl, it will alert you if you are in even the early stages of pregnancy. With a quick iTurd alarm, you can go off and get your “morning after” pills or start planning for a baby in your future.

How The iTurd Remains Charged

Using a new technology called AppleSpin, the iTurd contains components that turn motion into electricity. When you flush your toilet, the fluids swirling out spin the iTurd, causing it to recharge. It also provides a USB charging interface that, remarkably, works perfectly under water.

It’s Fun For the Whole Family

Each iTurd can be configured to recognize the expulsions of up to six different people and report information securely and privately to each’s iCloud enabled devices. Of course, one would want an iTurd for every toilet in their house as it’s often difficult to predict where one of the kids will decide to crap. Information from the iTurd from the kids can be shared with their parent’s devices so the nitwits who refuse to vaccinate their children can learn of oncoming measles, mumps and whooping cough. In a sense, the iTurd may be the product that saves your kids’ lives.

The iTurd Camera

When little Johnny or Joanie takes their first poop on the “big kid” toilet, your iTurd’s Hindsight® camera can broadcast a butthole view of the event and, by sending it to your AppleTV, allow the entire family to enjoy watching the event in big screen HD. And, of course, you can record this very first stool for viewing again and again.

What About Traveling?

Each iTurd comes with its own specially designed and hyper hygienic carrying case. If you’re heading off on a business trip or vacation, just reach into your toilet and pull out the iTurd, drop it into its case and toss it into your toiletry kit right next to your razor and toothbrush. And, like the other iOS devices, there’s a “find my iTurd” feature that you can access from any other of your iCloud attached products to tell if you had accidentally left it in a hotel toilet so they can mail it back to you.

Optional Features

Our information gathering has told us that the iTurd will be available in aluminum, stainless steel, gold or platinum plated and in a variety of shades of brown. Other extras include a telescoping toilet brush for cleaning beneath the rim and a blue tooth microphone so you can make your FaceTime calls while sitting on the crapper in the event that you forgot to bring your iPhone, iPad, Macintosh and/or AppleWatch to the john with you. Did you ever miss out on an important conference call because you had the runs? With an iTurd in your bowl, you’ll never miss a meeting again.

What About Accessibility?

As with all other iOS devices, the iTurd is accessible out of the box. Just hit its home button three times quickly and your iTurd will start talking to you. It can even, via blue tooth, announce its findings to you while you’re still on the bowl, just in the event that something horrible like small pox is detected.

Conclusions

I am entirely confident that within a few fiscal quarters, having an iTurd in your bowl will be an essential for all people who must own all things Apple. Imagine the embarrassment of having a friend come to your home, drink a few beers and, upon getting to your toilet for a piss, finds no iTurd? You’ll be the laughing stock of the entire hipster world. So, as soon as you can get one, grab hold of an iTurd and embrace this exciting new technology.

Our Apple source told us, “The iTurd will provide a totally new way we view our bowel movements and release of other bodily fluids in a manner incomprehensible ever before. People will live longer and happier lives. The iTurd is truly the future.”

—End

The Irony Of Inaccessible Music Technologies

Introduction

If one went out onto a city sidewalk to do a set of “man on the street” interviews asking a single question, “Name as many famous blind people as you can,” I’d be willing to predict that the names you would hear most often would be: Helen Keller, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Ronnie Milsap, Jose Feliciano and Andrea Bocelli, all but one of whom are or were musicians. In fact, as blind people we often hear that we must be good at music because our auditory sense is enhanced due to our blindness (it’s not) and that we have inordinately good hearing (we don’t).

As with all stereotypes, however, there is a definite thread of truth regarding blind people and our collective interest in the musical arts. While sighted kids were sent out to play ball or find their way into some other sort of childhood mischief, blind youths, often overly protected by loving parents who didn’t care to see their kid get hurt, stayed at home, often playing music or enjoying audio work. The stereotype suggests that blind people are better at this stuff due to some super power developed when we lose our vision which, of course, is entirely false; if blind people are disproportionally successful as musicians, it’s because they spent many more hours practicing than do most others.

I do not describe myself using the word “musician,” instead, preferring, “not entirely awful amateur harmonica player” as a description of my musical efforts. I enjoy both acoustic and electric blues music and I really love listening to great harmonica players like Sonny Terry (coincidentally also blind), Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, Big Walter Horton and loads of others. I enjoy blues-rock, especially acts from England in the late sixties like Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin but, more often than not, I find my inspiration in the electrified blues we call “Chicago Style.”

We find ourselves at an interesting point in history, digital technology can make virtually any computational task accessible to people with vision impairment. An application, web site or web app can, by following published standards like the accessibility API of the OS for which they are developing, WCAG 2.0, Aria and other standards, guidelines and best practices, be fully usable by a blind person with a screen reader.

As, by stereotype, blind people tend to gravitate toward music and audio work, why is so much of the technology related to recording, editing, producing and delivering such inaccessible? This article will explore some of the products I use with success, some that I cannot use at all and others that I can use somewhat but that contain some inaccessible features. This piece is in no way comprehensive, there are literally thousands of products available for musicians on the market today and there’s no way I could possibly give all of them a try. Hell, as a harmonica player, very few of these technologies would have any value to me, I care mostly about the instrument itself, my microphone (for electric blues harp blowing, I use a Shaker Mad Dog) and the amp through which I’m playing so I’ve no personal use for most musical technology out there today. Please do write comments about your experience with different music and audio related technologies and their accessibility so readers in the future might find them using a search engine and either choose to try something or not based on your recommendations.

Accessible Versus Usable

Arguably, Garageband from Apple on both their Macintosh and iOS platforms is the most accessible large scale bit of software for making, recording and delivering music and other audio content (podcasts and such) on the market today. Garageband, as I wrote in an article called, “The Macintosh User Experience,” exposes all of its features to the VoiceOver screen reader and a blind user can access all of them but many commonly used features of the software are unbearably inefficient to use.

I truly enjoy using Garageband for a handful of things. In my most frequent use case, I either load backing tracks from MP3 into a track in GB or create a back-up band for myself using AppleLoops and then play along with my virtual band. I do this most often on my iPad Mini using a guitar amplifier app I’ll mention later. This provides me with a great way to practice my playing without needing to find a drummer, bass player, guitarist and maybe a piano player.

What I find most frustrating with Garageband, on both iOS and OS X, though, is that editing one’s recordings, while accessible, requires the user to perform in one of the least efficient systems I’ve ever encountered. Simply cutting out a person coughing on a podcast track requires dozens of keystrokes and a fair amount of time to accomplish. Editing out a quarter second long bit of noise can take many minutes of effort, making Garageband an accessible but not exactly usable tool.

AmpKit Plus

Recently, a friend of mine suggested I might enjoy an iOS app called AmpKit. In brief, AmpKit is a collection of digital models of famous guitar amplifiers, speaker cabinets, stomp boxes and microphones from different eras and musical styles. As a harmonica player, I plug my microphone into a guitar amplifier so I can play with greater volume, some distortion, a bit of tremolo and some reverb effect. For my own playing, I like the sound of either a Fender Twin or a Vox AC30 with a bit of gain and some added reverb in my never ending attempt to sound as Little Walter did on his legendary recordings for Chess Records. I use a little box I bought for about $50 on Amazon that plugs into the headphone jack on my iPad with my harmonica mike plugged into it and the audio output running to the headphones covering my ears. With this set up, having spent the $20 or so for everything AmpKit has to offer in its in app store, I have a tremendous selection of gear that I can simulate and, if your playing is only as good as mine, you’ll sound terrific with this set up.

Inter App Audio

In iOS/7, Apple added a really interesting new feature called Inter App Audio that allows apps with such enabled to act as audio input devices for other audio related apps. For my purposes, this allows me to put a backing track into GB and play along with it using AmpKit to model my sound directly into Garageband. This permits me to both jam away practicing with my virtual band but it also allows me to record my own playing so I can listen to it (with or without backing tracks) later to gauge my progress as a player.

As AmpKit is entirely accessible and was the first Inter App Audio enabled bit of software I had installed, I was hoping that there might be a relationship between the accessibility API for iOS and that for mixing and matching apps in this way. Unfortunately, this turned out to be entirely false. The second app of this kind I installed is called “Amplitube” which also simulates famous vacuum tube based classic amplifiers of days gone by but, as it turns out, is almost entirely inaccessible. If you’re looking to model guitar amps and need to use VoiceOver, you will enjoy AmpKit but not be able to use Amplitube in any meaningful manner.

What About Hardware?

The Roland Micro Cube

While I enjoy practicing and recording using my iPad Mini, Garageband and AmpKit, I also need to play without headphones sometimes so others might hear me along with the guys with whom I’m jamming. For this, I use a Roland Micro Cube DSP based modeling amp that I picked up for $50 used at GuitarCenter. This little guy is terrific for practicing as it’s small and light but, at only 2 watts, it produces little in terms of volume. My harmonica playing purist friends scream when they hear me say I like this amp because it’s a digital system that models vacuum tubes instead of being an actual tube based amplifier. I’m not an audio purist, I’m happy with the sound I get from this amp when in its Fender Twin or Vox AC30 modes with a little reverb and tremolo turned on, features built into this amp and, if I need more volume, I can run the Micro Cube’s line out directly into a PA system without losing any of the audio clarity.

From an accessibility perspective, the Micro Cube and Roland’s entire line of DSP based amplifiers are a dream to operate. There is no LED display of any sort, all controls are hardware knobs and virtually anyone can figure out how to use them in little or no time.

The Behringer V-Amp 3

In my continuous quest to find the right sound for my harp blowing, I acquired a V-Amp 3 from Behringer. For all intents and purposes, the V-Amp is identical to the Micro Cube with the exception that it has no speaker at all. The V-Amp has a number of extra features that the Roland product does not but that one would find in AmpKit including the ability to change speaker cabinet simulations. Quite unfortunately, the V-Amp is only accessible in its “live” mode, a user can select an amplifier to model, adjust gain, reverb and set levels for bass, midrange and treble but cannot change speaker cabinets, use more than one stomp box effect at a time or use a lot of other features of the V-Amp as they all require one being able to see an LED screen on the device that is otherwise inaccessible.

Behringer allows any registered user of the V-Amp and a number of its other products to download software for controlling the device, recording and performing all sorts of other activities. As far as I can tell, having tried but not thoroughly tested the software on both Macintosh and Windows, it is not accessible and can not be used along with a screen reader.

Blindness Related Tutorials

In preparation for this article, I spent some time googling around searching on terms related to blindness, playing music, working with audio and making recordings. Some of these, especially one on using Amadeus Pro with Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader have been very useful for me and I’m grateful to those who spend the time to make YouTube videos, podcasts and write blog articles explaining how blind people can use this class of application.

What I find disturbing, though, is that virtually all of these tutorials spend a lot of time and words explaining how a screen reader user can work around accessibility problems in the different hardware and software they are describing. The sad thing is that the state of musical and audio accessibility is very poor. What’s worse is that it seems to be getting worse. While a harmonica player like me can find solutions, my friends who play keyboard based instruments are faced daily with an increasingly large number of features that are either impossible or very difficult to access on their instruments as virtually all have some kind of LED display that one needs to read to perform some actions. It’s certainly true that a blind musician can spend hours on end learning and memorizing exactly which operations need to occur in precisely which order to execute them without any feedback. It’s also true that at least one blind person could climb Mount Everest. I will contend that the majority of blind people who want to play around with musical technology do so in order to have some fun and not to earn a living. Or, at least, that’s why I use musical and audio technologies.

Conclusions

Rereading this article leaves me with the impression that the landscape regarding music and accessibility isn’t too bad. This is because I used as examples the technology products I actually use on a daily basis which, almost by definition, means that it’s going to be at least usably accessible. The unfortunate truth is that I often download musical related applications with some frequency that are impossible to use with any screen reader on any OS. Sadly, as with a lot of accessibility problems, a lot of these could be remedied pretty easily if the application is designed for a single platform. Most unfortunately, though, is that the engineers who write the musical software we might enjoy using often do so using cross platform user interface libraries that, although the underlying OS has an accessibility API, the library they are using so as to write the code once and run it on Windows, Macintosh, iOS, Android and maybe GNU/Linux too, does not support said API. I’m working on a long and detailed set of articles called “The Fundamental Failure Of Frameworks” that will dive into this issue in a broad manner but, for musicians in particular, these cross platform UI systems are at the core of the accessibility problems.

So, please write comments about your experience with different musical and audio technologies. This article ignores software that runs on Windows mostly because I’ve only recently got myself a Windows computer and, excepting Audacity, I haven’t had the chance to give any software in this class more than a cursory look. If you use such programs on Windows, please do tell the rest of us what you use and how many workarounds you need to deal with to get the job done using such. I also mentioned no Android programs as I no longer have an Android device in my house and cannot test software on that platform so, if you are using such successfully, please do tell us about it.

To conclude, the entire world seems to believe that blind people make terrific musicians with the exception of the companies that make technology related to music who seem to ignore our needs as a matter of course. Some companies, certainly Apple and the people who bring us AmpKit do a terrific job with accessibility but have some distance to come to improve actual usability and efficiency. Others, like those who bring us Amplitube ignore accessibility entirely. I’ve no way of knowing which technologies will or will not be accessible until I’ve actually tried to work with them myself and, as I’ve a limited amount of time and dollars to devote to my music (it’s just a hobby after all), I will never be able to write a fully comprehensive survey of the accessibility landscape regarding music and hope you readers help by writing comments.

What Did I Just Agree To?

Introduction

A few of weeks ago, as I do most days while not traveling (I am writing this article on a train from Manchester, England to Edinburgh, Scotland), I was hanging out on TeamTalk with our usual crowd of blind hackers, technology freaks and other friends who join us on occasion. That day, one of my buddies said he had heard a rumor about the JAWS license agreement but didn’t know if it was true or not.

The rumor was that, since releasing the new 90 day evaluation version of JAWS that Freedom Scientific had also changed its end user license agreement (EULA) to prohibit using the no cost 40 minute demo version for any reason other than evaluating it to decide if you would later choose to purchase the product. In brief, this means that a sighted programmer is prohibited from downloading the 40 minute version to use as an accessibility testing tool.

As with many rumors in this community and elsewhere, it’s actually partially true and partially false. The part that was incorrect is that FS added this language to its EULA after releasing the 90 day version of the program. The part that is true and, according to an article on the WebAIM site, has been true for a long time is that it is indeed a violation of its EULA to use the 40 minute demo version of JAWS as a testing tool.

To learn if the rumor was true, I got a copy of the JAWS 16 EULA and read the entire thing. It’s not very long, is written largely in plain English but contains a number of things that I found interesting. I will be quoting directly from the EULA which is also covered by the FS copyright but I will assume that the US laws on fair use of materials in journalism is acceptable under our nation’s copyright laws and will assume FS will not sue me for informing my readers because I excerpted a handful of sentences from their EULA. If they decide to sue me, I’ll ask you, my loyal readers, to help with the legal fees but I doubt it will come to that.

My Favorite Part Of The EULA

The first sentence in the JAWS EULA reads, “BY AGREEING TO THE TERMS OF THIS AGREEMENT, USING, INSTALLING OR DOWNLOADING THE SOFTWARE, YOU SIGNIFY YOUR ACCEPTANCE OF AND INTENT TO BE BOUND BY THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF THIS EULA.”

I absolutely love this sentence as it appears in the JAWS EULA which you cannot read until you’ve downloaded JAWS. Thus, by simply downloading the software without having previously read or agreed to the terms of the EULA, you are bound to it. I searched the FS web site and did a few Google searches on terms like “JAWS End User License Agreement,” “Freedom Scientific EULA” and the sorts of things one might use to find the EULA online. If FS has it on its web site, it’s well hidden. Thus, FS asserts that you are bound by the entire remainder of the text before they gave you the opportunity to actually know to which you’ve agreed.

My Second Favorite Sentence In The EULA

In section 11.7, titled “Sever ability,” the JAWS EULA says,
“In the event that any one or more of the provisions of this Agreement are held to be invalid or otherwise unenforceable”, the enforceability of the remaining provisions shall be unimpaired and enforced to the full extent permitted by law.”

What does this sentence actually say? In brief, FS is asserting that some, maybe even all of the EULA that appears before this sentence may not even be legal, enforceable or anything more than bullshit intended to frighten its users away from doing anything that they felt like tossing into a contract into which you may have entered accidentally by just downloading JAWS to check it out. This is not an uncommon tactic in software license agreements, it’s the way most of them get around restricting their statements to things that are actually legal.

The 40 Minute Demo Clause

“The JAWS EULA says, ”The JAWS 40 Minute Mode is not intended for commercial use or extended product testing, other than use while waiting for an authorized license or key to arrive or be installed.”

Thus, this half of the rumor that provoked this article is indeed true. If you are a web or other developer who wants to ensure that your software is accessible for JAWS users, you need to buy JAWS. This, of course, if not ignored by the coders hoping to test their code for accessibility means that they need to spend some money just to make sure JAWS users can enjoy their work. In brief, Freedom Scientific is, with this clause in its EULA, making it less likely that a software developer will even bother to try to make their work better for JAWS users. Fs quite obviously cares more about squeezing extra profits out of the kind of developers, the sorts who actually want to test their software for accessibility, whom I believe we should be encouraging.

There is an easy workaround for this problem: use NVDA to do your testing. NVDA is more compliant with standards and the various accessibility API used on Windows so, the results of your testing will more accurately reflect how your code is compliant with the standards. This may mean that JAWS users will have a less pleasant experience as the testing will not account for any of the more advanced techniques used in JAWS to work around poor accessibility but you can use NVDA for free, forever. If you are working on a web based project, you might also test on a Macintosh or iOS product where where VoiceOver, the Apple screen reader, is shipped at no extra cost to anyone who purchases an Apple device. Even Android, a system that any regular reader of this blog would know I dislike at this point, can be used to test your web based projects using the FireFox browser (Chrome is too buggy in how it delivers accessibility information to TalkBack, hence, is a poor testing tool).

The Standard Home Edition Restrictions

Quoting from the JAWS EULA again, “The Standard Home Edition License is limited to use by a single End User only and is limited to Your personal and non-commercial use.”

This simple sentence says a real lot. First, it says, “a single user” and not, “a single user at a time.” This means if one of your blind friends comes to your house and asks you if she can use your computer to check their email or perform some other minimal task, you are in violation of the JAWS EULA. So, if you want to follow the letter of the agreement, an agreement you didn’t get the chance to read before you downloaded the software and were already bound to follow, you can’t let your friends or family members or dog or space alien or any other entity who might want to share your computer for a little while. It also means that a blind couple living together must purchase two JAWS licenses as married people are never described as “single” in the US dialect of English.


This also seems to mean that you need to buy two copies of JAWS to use the JAWS Tandem feature. Read the sentence, you can only use it on one computer at a time so you can’t even use it to control another computer that you own. You can install JAWS on as many computers as you like, you just can’t use JAWS to allow them to communicate with each other.

Lastly, this means you need to plunk down a few hundred more dollars if you hope to use JAWS in any professional capacity. This could mean sending an email to a friend saying, “yes, I can babysit for your kid today,” as that would be professional communication, hence, prohibited by the JAWS EULA for the standard edition.

NVDA and Window-Eyes Licenses

NVDA is covered by the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 2. This means you can use it in any way you choose, at no cost, forever. You even have the right to get the NVDA source code and, if you have Python programming skills and the desire to do so, you can even make changes to NVDA itself. GPL was written by Eben Moglen at Columbia University under direction of the Free Software Foundation. It is designed to protect your freedoms and I find it a bit ironic that FS has the word “Freedom” in its name as anyone reading its EULA can tell you, that freedom, with a lower case f, isn’t part of their agenda.

In preparation for this piece, I took a look at the Window-Eyes license. While WE is not “free as in freedom,” it can be had for no cost if you also own Microsoft Office, which can be had for roughly $10 per month, profoundly less than the cost of buying JAWS. While I didn’t spend a lot of time with the WE agreement (this article is about JAWS after all), I did check and there’s no restriction against using the no cost version. I personally get confused when using WE as I use NVDA and the differences between the two and my poor level of familiarity with WE makes it a real pain for me to even test. If you need a no cost Windows screen reader and for some reason don’t like NVDA, give Window-Eyes a try before you even download JAWS as downloading JAWS committed you to a bunch of stuff that, as you can read above, you may not actually agree with. I didn’t mention WE in the section discussing using a screen reader as a testing tool mostly because of its relatively poor level of standards compliance on the web. I’m told this is getting better and will revise this opinion when and if WE catches up with JAWS, NVDA and the iOS version of VoiceOver.

Conclusions

If you want a screen reader and do not absolutely need the ever shrinking handful of features that only JAWS provides, you should switch over to NVDA. It’s a terrific screen reader, you cannot beat the price and it is incredibly standards compliant.

You might also take a little time to read the EULA on software you use. All of us with a smartphone, including me, just hit “Agree” and move on. The Apple EULA is incredibly long and I doubt any of us know to what we agreed when we accepted the license in order to actually use the product we purchased.

Freedom Scientific is a notoriously litigious company. On nine separate occasions, I’ve received letters from their attorneys regarding legal action they would either actually take or just threaten about articles I’ve written on my blog. Defending oneself against even a frivolous lawsuit is a costly endeavor and, as FS admits in its EULA, some of it may not even be legal but it will cost you a lot to find an attorney to help sort out what parts of the EULA are even enforceable. They can put anything in their EULA and it’s up to you to pay the legal fees to sort it all out.

The Foggy Third Party Screen Reader Issue

Introduction

Last week, I published a story here highly critical of NFBCS, NFB and Curtis Chong as leaders in technology related to blindness. The piece, “Accessibility And NFBCS” described a number of incredibly important issues in technological accessibility for people with vision impairment in which the largest advocacy organization in the world of blindness remains absent and asks how they can be effective leaders if they ignore the most important events of the day.

The article also discussed the question of whether or not it would have been better if Microsoft had made its own “end to end” screen reader. I believe that, as Apple provides on iOS and Macintosh and Google includes on Android, that all OS should have a fully functional screen reader shipping out-of-the-box. Sighted people don’t need to pay extra for the graphical UI they use, blind people should not need to pay extra for the UI we use either.

In last week’s article, I discuss the NFB role in pressuring Microsoft into not doing its own screen reader, favoring instead the high priced, third party solutions from Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, Dolphin and other companies. Last week’s article was specifically about NFBCS and Curtis Chong’s writings in Braille Monitor. It, therefore, described the NFB role in the third party screen reader story with little context. In the early drafts of that piece, I did include much more historical context but those early drafts of the article contained more than 6000 words and the final version that I actually published still had more than 3600 and was “too long” for some of my readers.

After publishing the story last week, I spent a few hours talking on the phone with NFB insiders who, like me and the other sources I used for that article, were actually present for some of the meetings with Microsoft and were observers to this history. While I feel that the story I told last week about NFBCS and its role is true, I also think it’s important that I tell the rest of the story.

I try to publish here every Tuesday. In some weeks, I have a lot of time to do a lot of research and write fairly formal pieces. Some weeks, like this one, I’ve less time to devote to the blog and, therefore, will be telling this story largely from memory. Unlike some articles here, it will not contain a lot of links to outside sources and such because I just haven’t the time to do so this week.

Ted Henter’s Speech

In the late nineties, Ted Henter, founder of Henter-Joyce and the inventor of JAWS, took the stage at an NFB convention general assembly and made a speech detailing exactly why he felt that screen readers will always be best if developed by small companies dedicated entirely to access technology. One may believe that Ted said these things out of a purely cynical desire to protect the profits of his own company but, while tis may be partially so, having worked for, talked to, hung out with and been friends with him for more than a decade now, I’m confident that Ted was speaking honestly to what he felt was a greater good.

When Ted made that speech, there were no fully functional screen readers built into operating systems. IBM had made two screen readers, Screen Reader/DOS and Screen Reader/2 but neither had ever gathered much popular appeal. Vocal-Eyes from GW Micro had been the most popular DOS screen reader among American users, followed by the DOS version of JAWS. When Windows came along, JAWS for Windows (JFW) and Window-Eyes would together dominate the market. Thus, when Ted made his speech, there were no examples of a fully functional screen reader having been accepted broadly by the user community, thus, no evidence of an OS vendor making a tool that our community would actually enjoy using.

The Others In The Room

Starting around 1995, MS held meetings on its campus up in Redmond to which as many accessibility oriented stakeholders were invited. This, of course, included the screen reader vendors, advocacy organizations including NFB, ACB and AFB and other notables from the world of technology and disability. As I state in the introduction, I am writing this from memory and the two NFB insiders to whom I spoke last week were also telling the story from their memories so, please realize, the following may be a bit foggy as that’s how human memory works.

As far as I can tell, everyone in the room at those meetings, the AT companies trying to protect our profits and the advocacy organizations speaking on behalf of their constituents, agreed that the third party screen reader system would provide the greatest access for the vast majority of users. I will contend that, then and for a number of years into this century, this model was probably the right path to take.

Life Before Accessibility API

If you are one of the many blind people who enjoy using an iOS device from Apple (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch), you are benefitting from Apple’s very well designed accessibility API and compliance with it in the apps you use. In the late nineties, though, there were no examples of a functional API driven screen reader anywhere.

The Big Hack

In the days before modern accessibility API had been invented, Windows screen readers used a technique called “driver hooking.” In brief, a part of JAWS, HAL, Window-Eyes and the others pretended it was a video card driver and gathered its data in what we called an “off screen model” (OSM). In brief, the OSM was a database of information sorted primarily on where things appear on the screen. Using some other techniques, the screen readers knew which Window, hence, application they were in and, along wit painstakingly developed heuristics for each program they hoped to support, they would then speak and/or braille the information for their users.

A little example of how this worked that I can recall of the top of my head is how JAWS tracked focus in Excel. To “know” which cell a user had in focus, the JAWS Excel support would “see” that the software had issued a series of “LineTo” graphical drawing commands to the video driver. JAWS had no actual idea about what was going on in Excel, so it had to jump through heuristic hoops to do something as simple as tracking focus.

Needless to say, a system built on having human programmers spend so much time figuring out the strange details of how a rectangle is drawn on the screen to track focus had severe limitations. Anytime an application made the slightest change, it would likely break the screen reader.

The OSM and screen scraping techniques also introduced major stability problems as it was such a non-standard way of doing things that neither Windows nor the applications running on it were aware of the screen reader as a device driver and, for their own purposes, also used non-standard techniques to put information on the screen. An application would try to do its own optimizations and would, as a result, cause a screen reader to crash.

MSAA 1.0

Microsoft’s was the first OS vendor to attempt to build an accessibility API. It was called Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) and, to be frank, it was little more than a demo of things to come. MSAA, even in its 2.0 version, did not provide a screen reader with enough information to provide its users with a usable solution. Thus, all screen readers using MSAA back then also had to include non-standard techniques to provide information properly to their users.

This fact alone is a large part of what made it virtually impossible for MS to make its own screen reader, until the advent of UIA (later in this piece), it was impossible to use anything resembling standard techniques to gather information.

The VBA Hack

At Henter-Joyce, Glen Gordon, still the top developer on JAWS, realized that using the automation API designed for VisualBasic programmers to extend Microsoft Office and other applications could also be used to get data into a screen reader. The JAWS team took Glen’s idea and ran with it. This was what the JAWS developers used to do all of the amazing things we did in MS Office back then.

The good thing about using the VBA approach was that we could gather very specific information in the context of the application being employed. We no longer had to follow graphics commands to determine focus, we could get the precise coordinates by simply asking Excel. There were two major downsides to this approach, it required that each application supported in this way have hand coded scripts written for it, hence, it also required that the screen reader had a scripting facility, something that, back then, Window-Eyes didn’t have and proudly boasted that they didn’t even want.

The Window-Eyes Versus JAWS Approach

At this point in our story, I must acknowledge that GW Micro, in what felt to me like business suicide, chose to embrace the MSAA path while we, at Freedom Scientific, continued to reject it. History shows us that GW Micro was on the right side of the technological discussion then but, in my mind, they arrived at that conclusion too early.

While GW Micro would provide no cost consulting advice to billion dollar corporations on how to get MSAA implemented in their software, we, at FS continued down the path of non-standard solutions. In many ways, this is what put JAWS on top of the heap, it could do things no other screen reader could and it provided the best experience for its users as a result.

The Hole In The JAWS Approach

In order to provide the best possible collection of data to its users, JAWS employed v very non-standard techniques mixing its OSM with the VBA support and MSAA where available. The outcomes were terrific for the end uses but, inside FS, continuing to support each application using custom code (scripts and internal) was an expensive proposition. In the world of generic accessibility API, a screen reader like VoiceOver gets all of its information from said interface, hence, when the app changes, no one needs to go in and change the code in the screen reader. This was not true then and to a lesser extent now for JAWS.

As I’ve written here many times before, by 2003, JAWS had reached a monopoly marketshare at around 85% of all new product sales. FS, therefore, had no incentive to continue investing in JAWS as it had won the race. Thus, with JAWS receiving less and less funding annually, these custom solutions started to deteriorate.

The First Real Accessibility API

While MSAA was a pretty poor bit of technology, Microsoft should be recognized for even giving it a try. As there were no accessibility API in existence before MSAA, they had no point of reference and MSAA stood as a solid prototype for things to come.

In my opinion, the first truly usable accessibility API was the one led by Peter Korn at Sun Microsystems. It not only provided specific information about a control, it had the facility to provide its context, hence, enable a screen reader to provide a more complete picture to its users. In effect, the Gnome Accessibility API was the first of its breed.

Apple would follow with its API and Microsoft would craft something called User Interface Automation (UIA) that serves as both an accessibility API and a test framework for the software. Today, with comprehensive accessibility API on all major OS, it’s reasonable to expect a fully featured screen reader also to be included with of them.

IAccessible2

On iOS, OSX and Gnome, there’s one accessibility API on each. On Windows, the OS with the largest number of users, blind or otherwise, there is a second one called iAccessible2 (iA2). Some experts would argue that iA2 is the best and most important of the various accessibility but, in all honesty, I’m not expert enough to describe either its benefits or any pitfalls within it. The Mozilla Foundation chose iA2 over UIA or MSAA in the Windows versions of it’s applications and it’s iA2 that you’re enjoying when you use FireFox with NVDA.

When iA2 was developed, it was intended to be a cross platform accessibility API. The goal was to permit application developers who build software on multiple OS to write their accessibility code once and be able to reuse it on other systems. Sadly, while iA2 is “owned” by the Linux Foundation, it has never been implemented on any system other than Windows, something I think is a shame.

Another huge question is whether or not Microsoft will support iA2 in its “end to end” Narrator. They may elect to only support UIA/MSAA and, therefore, leave FireFox and the other iA2 enabled applications out of the sphere of its support. This could be another reason third party screen readers like NVDA may stick around into the future.

Conclusions

The only conclusion I can draw about the entire third party screen reader debate is that the story is much more foggy than one might think. NFB did insist on promoting the third party, mom and pop company solutions but they didn’t do so alone. HJ/FS, GW Micro, AFB, ACB and everyone else in those meetings except for MS agreed that this was the best path forward. History and Apple have demonstrated that it is, indeed, possible to deliver a high quality, no cost screen reader along with the OS and, holding that high priced, proprietary third party screen readers are a favorable solution in the 21st century is purely anachronistic thinking.

I do not mean to suggest that third party screen readers will or even should disappear entirely, they will likely fulfill an important set of requirements for a lot of people, third party screen readers might even become the luxury products of the Windows world, supporting applications too old to have included MSAA/UIA or by providing a user experience different from and preferred by some to the generic Narrator. Of course, I’ve been predicting the demise of the commercial third party screen reader since I wrote an article slamming JAWS 7 on my old blog so I’m likely not the best prognosticator of things to come.

Afterward

I would like to express my thanks to the loyal NFB members to whom I talked on the phone and exchanged emails with last week. I appreciate the insight you guys gave me, a different perspective on the different meetings up in Redmond and the help you provided in writing this article. I appreciate honest and sincere dialogue and also thank the NFB faithful and everyone else who posted comments on last week’s article. In my opinion, the more discussion we can have about this community within this community the better.

Fortunately for all involved, technology progresses. At the AFB Leadership conference in Phoenix last week, Rob Sinclair announced that Narrator would, in Windows 10, be an “end to end” screen reader. Only the future can tell us how it will work out.

Accessibility and NFBCS: More Questions Than Results

Introduction

Last week, Curtis Chong, the seemingly permanent president of The NFB in Computer Science (NFBCS) published an article in Braille Monitor highly critical of accessibility at Microsoft, especially of the accessibility on its Windows platform. Chong presents a number of indisputable facts with which I agree entirely, there are many things regarding accessibility to people with vision impairment that Microsoft does very poorly. Chong is also correct that accessibility across the Microsoft catalogue is highly inconsistent with some programs providing excellent coverage and others providing none at all. I applaud Curtis for the shedding light on the problems he describes and hope Microsoft will take action to remedy them as quickly as possible.

I also felt that Chong’s article was misleading, that it contained statements that were either inaccurate or unverifiable but, worst of all, it lacks detail in the historical context, an elephant sized hole in the story.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been exploring the concept of leadership in the blindness and technology space. I’ve talked about the changing leadership paradigm in, “Anarchy, Leadership and NVDA,” I’ve discussed leadership in innovation through traditional paths in my CSUN 2015 report and, in my article about Be My Eyes, I discussed another path a team had taken to lead a project of significant value. This article will, in the context of Chong’s piece, explore leadership in technology from NFB and how it, in my opinion, has been a failure for decades.

This article was sourced through public records and through private conversations and communications with 2 former and 2 current Microsoft employees and a number of others who had witnessed some or all of the events described herein. In my role at Freedom Scientific, I was also party to and present at some of the discussions summarized below. Thus, my sources are not “anonymous” but, rather, “unnamed.” As some of these statements are controversial, I will not reveal my sources as they may face retribution. They can, if they choose, self-identify themselves in the comments section. It is very likely that at least one section in this piece will be broken out into a separate and more detailed account of that part of the history as I think you will find it very interesting.

What Curtis Got Right

First, I’d like to recognize that Curtis gets a lot correct in his piece. I’ll confirm that most of the facts I did check are true. The statement he makes in his opening paragraph, “For those of us who are blind, access to Microsoft products is not just something that we would like to have. Rather, full non-visual access to Microsoft products is essential if we are to have any hope of being able to compete in today’s technology-driven labor market, let alone maintain parity with our sighted neighbors at home,” could not possibly be more true.

Chong’s article lists a number of MS products that are mostly inaccessible. Chong’s conclusions, that MS still has a lot of work ahead of them to ensure true and universal accessibility is also true.

The Elephant Sized Hole In The Story

If you haven’t already, please stop reading here and read Chong’s piece immediately.

Now that you’re back, ask yourself, what piece of technology fundamentally important to users with vision impairment does Curtis not mention in his article? If Apple has VoiceOver, a fully featured screen reader, Google has TalkBack, a rough attempt at the same and the Gnome Foundation has Orca, why does Microsoft have no fully featured screen reader of its own? Curtis may have simply been careless in his reporting, he may have been so focussed on application accessibility that he simply forgot to include the missing screen reader in his analysis. Or, as I contend, Curtis left out this detail intentionally.

The elephant sized hole in the story is that NFB has been on the wrong side of the leadership argument in their interactions with Microsoft. NFB’s positions have prevented MS from making its own screen reader and, as we will see later, its continued support for third party commercial AT is part of the reason why Microsoft still has accessibility problems in its technology.

The pressure NFB has put on Microsoft into not building its own screen reader, preferring instead to accept that third party screen readers would provide access to the Windows operating system has been a failure. It is for this reason that, when one launches Narrator, the screen access utility from Microsoft, it tells the user that it is not a fully functional tool and is only useful as a temporary solution until the user installs a real one.

the economic realities of business in the 21st century meant that the “mom and pop” companies like HJ and Blazie Engineering would find their way into a merger/acquisition deal that would put ruthless venture capitalists in charge of JAWS, still the most popular screen reader. The same economic realities have shown the Window-Eyes share, once equal to that of JAWS, drop to single digits.

Perhaps the most notable economic reality that the NFB approach ignored was that, because a screen reader is necessarily a niche product, the only way an independent company can make one and be profitable is by charging a real lot of money for each license. The NFB tact of working against an MS screen reader cost blind people, their employers and their educators millions of dollars that could have been spent otherwise if a no cost one existed. . NVDA, led by volunteers, saw the inequity of blind people needing to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars and its leaders took it on themselves to solve this problem while NFB ignored it entirely.

The Third Party Screen Reader Hypocrisy

As we’ve seen, NFB insisted that MS not do its own screen reader. NFB would later insist that Apple and Google build their own screen readers to provide out-of-the-box accessibility at no extra cost to consumers. I wonder if NFB learned from the chaos on Windows system and realized that it would be better if a screen reader was built into the operating system. Chong seems to praise the Apple experience which, regarding out-of-the-box accessibility is the best available.

In his piece, Curtis suggests that application developers at Microsoft should be tasked with testing against screen readers. This actually makes sense on products from Apple and Google as every developer at those companies have a screen reader they can launch easily and, if tasked with testing for accessibility in their project plans, they need only test against a single user agent. Chong seems to suggest that developers at Microsoft, instead of testing for compliance with the accessibility API, also perform functional tests against third party software. I think it’s absurd to think that developers at MS should try to test against software over which they have no control. If they were tasked with testing with Narrator, it would make sense, MS controls both the application and the AT; suggesting that developers and quality assurance professionals at MS learn JAWS and NVDA (the only Windows screen readers with enough market presence to warrant testing) and test against them is simply absurd.

Is NFBCS An Effective Advocate?

Chong writes, “Year after year, the National Federation of the Blind and the Microsoft Accessibility Team engage in active and ongoing communication, and year after year, we have communicated our frustrations and concerns to this team.” To which I ask, “If Curtis and NFB have been working with the MS ATG for more than two decades and, as Chong expresses in his article, the accessibility job remains mostly incomplete, are Curtis Chong, NFBCS and NFB itself actually effective advocates for this community?”

The Notable NFB Absences

I contend that Curtis and NFB have done a poor job of understanding the technology and, as a result, are ineffective advocates in this space. I didn’t quite know how I could express how an advocacy organization was “ineffective” as proving a negative is a logical impossibility so, instead, I thought I might list a number of very important areas in accessibility for people with vision impairment that, as far as Google can tell us, NFB has not participated. To this end, I used the search engine to look for terms important in technological accessibility with “National Federation Of The Blind” and/or “NFB” in the search terms.

  • WCAG 2.0 is the single most important set of guidelines for Internet accessibility to all people with disabilities, including we blind people. I googled, “+NFB WCAG 2.0” and found that Google gave us 7 results, zero of which were on an NFB related site. I then googled, using “National Federation Of The Blind” in place of “NFB” and did find one link to an NFB site in the top ten results and it was the consent decree in an NFB lawsuit requiring the defendant to follow WCAG 2.0. I tried a few more search terms and found identical results, it is obvious that no one from NFB, not even Curtis the president of the computer science subgroup, participated in the development of the standard and that there isn’t a single article on the NFB web site explaining this somewhat complex and definitely esoteric set of guidelines. Searching on these terms without including NFB provides one with a panoply of tutorials and other useful information from the entire world of accessibility but, sadly, none of it comes from NFB.

  • The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has another standard called Aria. Web developers use Aria to include the semantics that a screen reader can use to tell users about complex web applications. In brief, if you use a complicated but also accessible web application like Microsoft Office Online (quite accessible albeit a bit sluggish with NVDA and FireFox), you are enjoying the work the developers did using Aria. So, I googled “+NFB WAI Aria” and, guess what? I found zero entries on any NFB sites. When I spelled out the name of the organization, I find exactly one search result on an NFB page and, once again, it is about legal frameworks and not technology. Searching without the “+NFB” provides one with another large list of tutorials, analysis, explanatory information about Aria from everywhere in the world of accessibility but not NFB.

  • Microsoft’s accessibility API is called User Interface Automation, if Curtis and NFB are so concerned about the accessibility of Windows applications, surely they must provide readers of the NFB web site with information on how to ensure their applications comply with the API, right? Wrong. If you google “+NFB User Interface Automation” you will probably, as I did, get zero results and two advertisements for contractors who do work using UIA. No matter how we search, we can’t find anything from NFB on this important piece of technology.

  • The 21st Century Video and Communication Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) is the most important bit of new legislation regarding disability and technology to come along in quite some time. As with all such laws, the agency charged with enforcement must hold a public comment period to determine how it should proceed with the wishes of Congress. During the CVAA public comment period, Pratik Patel (then Curtis’ approximate equivalent at ACB), on behalf of his advocacy organization, filed hundreds of pages in public comments. The combination of NFB, NFBCS and Curtis Chong filed exactly zero. I’m neither a member nor a promotor of ACB but, on this very important task in ensuring that CVAA will be enforced, Pratik and ACB took on a leadership. I’ll assume that the reason NFB, NFBCS and Curtis made no comments was that they were overwhelmingly impressed by Pratik’s genius in this matter and were happy to have ACB speak for all blind people.

  • The Section 508 Refresh was passed by Congress and opened for public comment. Again, Pratik Patel and the ACB wrote up a ton of documentation and filed it in this important matter. Heck, on behalf of the Free Software Foundation (not a group known for its stellar record on accessibility), I filed a few pages of comment on 508 Refresh. The beauty of public comment is that it’s public so anyone can search the records and discover that NFB filed nothing on this matter. A friend who had attended the public hearings told me that NFB people did attend those sessions but that their only contributions could be summarized as, “blind people need to be involved in the process,” which was already true when they said it and, “NFB speaks for blind people,” which I contend is false as they don’t speak for me. I said the NFB deferred to Pratik on CVAA so I’ll suggest that Curtis and the NFB must have found my comments so brilliant, so illustrative that they chose not to do any of their own and let me speak for the community.

I could go on but, at this stage, I think you get the point. NFB and NFBCS, under Curtis Chong’s leadership, has steadfastly refused to participate in the most important developments in access technology. If, indeed, NFBCS, NFB and Curtis Chong have not contributed to the development, promotion, explanation of these and other extraordinarily important areas in accessibility, they are irrelevant as leaders. It’s easy to write articles like Curtis’, it’s easy to complain, to bitch and moan but it takes actual work to be part of the solution, work that Curtis and NFBCS have thus far refused to join in doing.

Gonz Gets Pedantic

I try to do my best to post articles that are as factual as possible. I may draw a controversial conclusion and use fairly aggressive prose when I express an opinion but, whenever a factual error is presented to me in an article I had published previously, I add a correction to the piece.

This blog is different from Curtis Chong’s articles in Braille Monitor (BM) for a lot of other reasons as well. First, I do not claim to be representing anyone other than myself and those who have given me explicit permission to speak for them. Curtis, in his role, claims to speak for “the blind” which, arguably, would include me. Second, Curtis, as is obvious by the introductory section in his article, claims to speak with authority, apparently derived from talking to other blind people; my own blog profile states that I am a loudmouth, crackpot stoner, I don’t claim any authority or expertise, I let my words speak for themselves and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions. Third, I allow you to post comments on this blog and no NFB publications, including Curtis’ articles in BM, permit any public discourse. If Curtis allowed for comments, we could have had this conversation as dialogue and the rest of you could have contributed as well but NFB sorts speak from “on high” and discourage interaction.

I, therefore, feel it is reasonable to hold Curtis Chong to a higher journalistic standard than I do even myself. He claims to be speaking for all of us and I, therefore, think he should be more careful with the way he states things. To wit:

  • Curtis writes, “Today only a small percentage of Microsoft products are regarded by the blind as comfortable and intuitive to use…” and as far as I know this may be true. As far as I know, this statement is false. I would like to know what was Curtis source for the things he states as fact, namely, the term “a small percentage.” I would also like to know Curtis’ definition of “the blind” in this sentence as I cannot find a supporting document in my googling.

  • Curtis, in the same section, continues by stating, “well over 80 percent of Microsoft products remain inaccessible to non-visual users.” I googled using as many terms as I could and could not find this 80% number published anywhere. I’m also curious as to the definition of “accessible” in this context. Did Curtis or others around the NFB actually test every program from MS and, if so, where did they publish their results. I dislike magic numbers when included in prose and, when used to discredit a corporation’s efforts, I believe that such numbers should not be used without a verifiable source as doing so is just ad hominem.

  • Chong writes, “There does not appear to be any user-experience research being conducted by Microsoft into improving efficiency for keyboard-only users, including the blind.” First, blind people also use crazy wild new fangled things like touch screens and track pads as well as keyboards these days. Second, many years ago, NFB itself published a valuable bit of UX research and is the command set still used on most braille keyboard based devices; as far as I can tell, with Curtis at the helm, NFBCS and NFB have not published any UX research in this area either. Researching user experience for keyboard only users would provide an excellent resource to Microsoft but also to Apple, Google and every other company that hopes to include effective keyboard control of its products. Perhaps, Curtis should be asking, why has it been so many years since NFB published actionable user experience research?

  • Curtis includes an oddly rambling paragraph on MSAA and UIA, the accessibility API in Windows. He writes, “the screen-access software vendors (very small companies in relation to Microsoft) had to devote considerable resources to make this happen. It would be better if these relatively small companies could spend more time and effort coming up with innovations that improve the efficiency and productivity of blind users of their software.” Or, one might say, if NFB hadn’t pressured MS into not making its own screen reader, we might actually have a company who can afford to keep up with OS releases like Apple can with its VoiceOver software? Why, decades later, Chong still insists that the broken system of high priced third party screen readers should continue is baffling.

  • In the same section on Windows accessibility API, Chong also neglects to state that FS actively opposed using standard API at all. I am part of the guilty party in this as, when I worked at Fs and for a few years afterward, I argued that an API solution could never provide the kind of accessibility that we could with JAWS using proprietary techniques. We argued vociferously that, rather than a generic API, applications should expose a VB like programming interface so we, the third party screen reader developers could craft custom solutions for each separate program we cared to support. An API solution was fine for simple applications but something fancy, Excel for instance, would always do better if we could write highly customized scripts for the UX. When HJ became FS, we stopped investing as heavily in JAWS development and it was our lack of investment in further support using these non-standard techniques that resulted in deteriorating in application accessibility, not MS. It was FS who rejected MSAA approaches and chose our own non-standard route to accessibility. You can’t blame MS for deteriorating accessibility in the third party screen readers which are entirely beyond its control. If you want to blame anyone, blame me, I fought hard against API back then, so did Glen Gordon and Eric Damery. MS was right, we were wrong.

  • Curtis writes, “For years Microsoft has left the blind with no access to Windows phones.” This is not true with phones based in Windows 8. I haven’t tried a Windows phone myself and reports from the field say it is a bit sluggish but, if the word “accessible” can be applied to Android as Chong does, it should also be applied to Windows Phone 8 as regards the more than 90% of blind technology users who prefer a synthesized voice interface, Windows Phone does not yet support refreshable braille devices.

  • About the MS Bitlocker software, Curtis writes, “A blind employee who is required to use a computer with Microsoft BitLocker installed will be unable to turn the computer on and get it running—not to mention use it.” This is strange coming from an advocacy organization that opposes accessible money, beeping traffic lights and other structural bits of accessibility. The fact is, Bitlocker is not “accessible” under any known definition of the word but, as I know a whole lot of blind people whose jobs require using the software daily, suggesting that it is impossible for a blind person to use is misleading. I asked a friend how she used it and she told me, “I turn my laptop on, I wait a little while, I type in my PIN and hit ENTER, my computer starts.” Yes, Apple has made their similar technology accessible and MS should as well but, as many blind people can work around it, it isn’t a functional impossibility as Chong suggests.

I believe that a “leader” in this space, someone who by his statements that he speaks for “the blind” should be much more careful in their publications. I’m a crackpot blogger, Curtis is publishing in an official organ of an advocacy organization that claims to represent our community. I think he should be held to a much higher level of journalistic standards and, as I illustrate above, Chong’s article is filled with problems and outright factual errors.

Conclusions

The community of blind computer users need effective advocacy but NFB, NFBCS and Curtis Chong have demonstrated poor judgement on technological, economic, political and structural issues of the gravest importance to this community. They have not participated in the most important discussions regarding standards, guidelines, API, user experience or anything else in this space. NFB seems to do nothing to promote use of accessibility development tools or standards compliance on any platform including Windows and provides none of the useful explanatory materials a developer hoping to make his work accessible might search on. As far as I can tell, regarding advocacy on technological matters, NFB, NFBCS and Curtis Chong have been present but irrelevant for a very long time now.

To clarify, this article is specifically about leadership and advocacy and discusses the Curtis Chong, NFBCS and NFB as spokespeople for our community. NFB does many other things including having funded the development of KNFB Reader, a really terrific iOS app that I enjoy using frequently. Unfortunately, KNFB Reader is a rare exception in a very large organization.

Be My Eyes And Asking For Help

Introduction

Often, I receive queries from readers of this blog asking if I will write about a particular subject in blindness and technology. These are usually good ideas for stories but, given the schedule I keep, they would take far more of my time to research, write and edit than I have available in my life at this point. Sometimes, though, a number of people all suggest that I write about the same subject and this article is the result of a number of those requests added to my own fascination with the Be My eyes phenomena.

As with the successful NVDA Remote Access fundraising campaign I wrote about here a couple of weeks back, I’m left with few hard and fast conclusions about Be My Eyes, its unprecedented growth in popularity, its penetration into mainstream media or its long term impact. What I am certain of, though, is that Be My Eyes accomplished something we’ve never before witnessed in the world of blindness and technology and that I am tremendously enthusiastic about its success so far.

What Is “Be My Eyes?”

If you read this blog, you probably follow the world of technology and vision impairment pretty closely so you are probably already quite aware of Be My Eyes (BME). If, however, you’ve been in a Rip Van Winkle style coma for the past few months, you may have missed what has been the 2015 access technology story of the year so far. Be My Eyes is an iOS app that, using a video chat system, connects blind people with sighted volunteers who can in turn lend them their ability to see.

Users download the Be My eyes software from the AppStore for no cost. When they launch the app for the first time, they are asked to register as either a blind person who may need assistance or as a sighted volunteer willing to provide such help. As I’m a blind user, when I launch the app, I’m presented with a very simple interface with only two buttons, one for “Settings” and the important one, “Connect To First Available Helper.” When one taps on the “connect” button, a little tune plays until one of the sighted volunteers accepts a request for help. Once connected, the blind user can point the camera on the iOS device at the object with which they need sighted assistance and the two parties can talk until they are satisfied they’ve solved the problem the blind person was experiencing.

The BME Phenomena

Be My Eyes is, quite obviously, a very useful tool as it provides near instant access to a volunteer willing to lend their vision to a situation in which a blind person needs some help. What BME is definitely not, though, is a tremendously innovative bit of engineering. For all intents and purposes, BME is a video chat program with the added feature of automatically connecting a person requesting assistance with a volunteer willing to help at that moment. The exciting aspects of BME aren’t wizardry in software engineering but, rather, its mastery of social engineering.

If you launch Be My Eyes right now, you will hear that it has 192K sighted volunteers, 17.3 registered blind users and 63.9K people have been helped so far. BME launched in January and, while actual market figures are impossible to get for other blindness related software products, I’m willing to wager that no technology product has reached as many blind people in as short a span of time ever before. I’m also 100% confident that no technology designed for assisting people with disabilities has received as much mainstream media attention in as compact a period either.

What BME Did

When a new technology product designed for use by blind people comes out, the hardest problem a publicist has communicating to mainstream media about it is what the thing actually does. The number of times I’ve had to explain that a screen reader is an output agent and is not voice recognition grows with nearly every conversation I have with a sighted person about the primary means with which a blind person interacts with a computer. We all use screen readers but few people outside the biz even know that such exist.

Enter Be My eyes. It does exactly one thing, it connects blind users with sighted helpers. For a blind person, it’s value is obvious, I tap a button, point the camera and I get sighted assistance; for the sighted volunteers, the value is also obvious, someone who can’t see needs to borrow a pair of eyes, I can do that.

The Be My Eyes story is so obvious, the mainstream media could comfortably talk about it and they did so in droves. I think that BME may be the first blindness oriented program that combined tremendous value to users while also having a story that can be told easily enough for all to understand.

The BME Controversy

I am of the belief that everyone, blind or otherwise, lives in a society and that each of us have ways to contribute and times we will need help. Some people around the blindness conversation are more radical than I am about independence. In my view, if asking a sighted person for help will solve a problem more quickly than I could do so by insisting on being fiercely independent, I’m going to ask for help. I often ask other pedestrians to identify places while I’m walking in a city, BME lets me ask for help when I’m alone and need sighted assistance in a hurry.

A few weeks back, though, I heard a sighted person on NPR pondering Be My Eyes with the question, “Would I be enabling or somehow taking away the agency of a blind person by helping them this way?” I suppose in the marketplace of ideas, such questions should be asked and such issues should be discussed. I don’t have answers to the hard problems in critical disability theory, I’m neither a scholar nor a philosopher. As a blind person who has BME installed on his phone, though, I’m happy to have this tool available to me and, having used it three times, I can say that it has been useful when I had no alternatives for getting something accomplished.

Conclusions

Be My eyes did something incredible in the blindness space. The BME team created a useful tool but, more interestingly, created a social phenomenon previously non-existent in our world. The sheer simplicity of the BME app allowed for a simple story to be told in a manner that the global media could comprehend. Will there be a next BME? Will another project repeat the publicity storm of Be My Eyes? I don’t know, I’m just happy that this event has happened and that we have BME as a tool on our mobile devices.

CSUN 2015 Report: Traditional Leadership

Introduction

Last week, I published an article here called “Anarchy, Leadership and NVDA” in which I described how both the NVDA screen reader and the recent NVDA Remote Access projects were able to find funding through non-traditional sources. I discussed the challenges such efforts were causing for the traditional access technology vendors and how, through a democratic and anarchistic system, blind people took responsibility for financing the technology we need and desire.

A few weeks ago, I attended the CSUN Conference on Disability and Technology in San Diego. There, a handful of the presentations I attended demonstrated technology and expressed ideas that cracked my affected cynicism and, for different reasons, impressed me greatly. Unlike NVDA and the crowdsourced free software projects I’ve discussed recently, these projects demonstrated leadership funded and developed through more traditional channels. Thus, leadership is emerging from the mob but, it’s important to recognize, that at CSUN we witnessed a number of important and interesting developments from academia, the standards community and the corporate world. Sadly, none of the interesting developments came from the traditional access technology companies.

Last year, I wrote tens of thousands of words largely about out-of-the-box accessibility on Android beginning with “Testing Android Accessibility: I Give Up” (the single most popular article I published in 2014), followed by a series of articles on the deplorable accessibility on that platform, a series of articles on Apple’s deteriorating accessibility concluding with, “The Macintosh User Experience” (coincidentally the one of the least popular articles we published in 2014), which described how the out-of-the-box accessibility delivered by Apple just ain’t good as it used to be. Thus, as I spent most of a year writing about Apple and Google and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft, I skipped their CSUn presentations and, instead, focussed on topics, presenters and companies doing things I found interesting and innovative.

One observation I did make about CSUN in general this year, it was my first since 2012, was that a whole lot of the demoes I attended and a lot of the hallway buzz I heard was about NVDA. In the past, virtually all presentations that used a screen reader, used JAWS. At CSUN 2015, more than half of the presentations I heard showed with NVDA and/or VoiceOver. I think this is another indication of the trend toward free and no cost screen readers but, remember, this is an anecdote based purely on my observations and your experience may have been different.

MathPlayer

It was 4:20, a time I like to celebrate, on Friday afternoon, the final slot for CSUN presentations. It was the forth or fifth presentation of the week on math accessibility but the room was filled with tired but enthusiastic attendees as this was the math presentation of the week. For me, as we will see, it had personal implications far in excess of the terrific technology to be presented.

Sina Bahram, PhD candidate at NC State, president of Prime Access Consulting (PAC) and a close personal friend of mine since he was 19 years old took the stage with David MacDonald of CanAdapt Solutions and CB Averitt of Deque Systems.

I was there to hear Sina and his demo of MathPlayer with NVDA.. I had been following this project for far longer than all but two people in the room, Neil Soiffer of Design Science and I could have known.

I first saw a super secret demo of the technology when Sina brought it to my Cambridge, Ma home last August. I was notably impressed as he showed me how different fields in mathematics were spoken with different rules as appropriate to their specific vocabulary as he navigated through what, for me at least, were pretty complicated equations. I wanted to write an article about it then but my “friend DA” with Sina kept old Gonz’s mouth shut. In my home that afternoon, Sina also told me a story about MathPlayer’s difficulty getting Freedom Scientific to support it in JAWS. In brief, Sina and Neil met with a pair of FS executives at CSUN 2014 and were told that FS saw no business case for supporting math, an obvious lie as they would instead include their own proprietary and entirely inferior solution when they released JAWS 16 in September. At the same CSUN, Sina met with Mick Curren and Jamie Teh, the guys behind NVDA and, on his plane ride home to Australia, Jamie had written the code and MathPlayer was demonstrable with the free solution.

Sina’s demo, while impressive, only showed the tip of the iceberg of this powerful new way for blind users of NVDA and, soon, Window-Eyes to be able to study math. Sometime in the next month or so, I will be posting an article here specifically about progress in mathematics for people who use screen readers that will include an in-depth description of MathPlayer with NVDA as well as a discussion of MathMLCloud from our friends at Diagram Center. As that article will contain specific details about these and perhaps some other technologies, it’s one that will take a lot more effort than a standard article here so, while it’s in progress, it’s going to take a while to get right.

In addition to enjoying watching a friend I’ve had for more than a decade do an impressive presentation, my personal connection to this project made me feel a bit emotional. When the panel completed the formal portion of the event, my hand was the first to be raised. I didn’t have a question but, rather, a statement I cleared my throat and said, “As I was the first ever Freedom Scientific executive to have been forced to tell Neil Soiffer that we wouldn’t support his work in JAWS, I just want to thank Sina, Neil, Mick, Jamie and everyone else involved in this effort for ending what’s been more than a decade of personal shame.” That brought a round of applause and I felt so happy that, after more than a decade after we had commissioned a specification to build a MathML solution into JAWS, Design Science, Sina, NVDA and soon Window-Eyes will be delivering it to their users.

As this is the article on CSUN and not on math itself, I also want to recognize Sina for the complete classiness of his presentation. While it focussed on his own work on MathPlayer and the demonstration was done with NVDA, the only screen reader that fully supports it today (the Window-Eyes solution is still a beta), he also showed how a JAWS user could do the same with the FS solution in JAWS 16. The really classy part of Sina’s presentation was that he only showed the good parts of the JAWS solution when he could have bashed it for any number of reasons, most notably, the vast superiority of the NVDA/MathPlayer combination. Sina is a class act, I’m Gonz Blinko so I can say such things.

If you’re interested in exploring math in NVDA, follow the links above to the Design Science site, grab the software and give it a ride.

FireFox OS

This piece is starting to sound like a list of Gonz’s personal friends as the second presentation I’d like to feature was the one done by old buddy and fellow Freedom Scientific throw away, Marco Zehe. If you don’t know Marco and you get the chance to meet him, you’re probably already friends, you just don’t know it yet as he’s one of the sweetest, most charming, delightful and smartest people you’ll meet around this business. If you use a screen reader and enjoy the fabulous accessibility in the FireFox browser , Marco is the guy you have to thank for it.

At CSUN 2015, Marco showed the world the accessibility features of FireFox OS, a mobile operating system designed to run on low cost handsets. The beauty of this solution is that this entire operating system is based in an expanded purpose version of the FireFox browser, hence, it inherits the accessibility features we already enjoy with the FireFox browser on Windows with NVDA and TalkBack on Android.

From what I gleaned from Marco’s presentation is that all of the controls that a FFOS app will need (the kinds of standard controls available on all OS), has their accessibility components built in and turned on by default. As the entire OS is designed to run on low end hardware, it is less likely that application developers will spend a lot of time and effort creating custom and inaccessible controls as they will also require additional memory and more horsepower from a low cost and low powered processor. I predict that, when it’s ready for general distribution, mobile devices running FFOS will jump into second place behind only iOS as the most accessible mobile devices on the market. And, unlike the one definite plus that Android can boast over iOS, it’s also going to be very inexpensive.

As Marco was showing off the screen reader that will come with FFOS, I asked the wise crack question,” Does it use circles, right angles and other weird gestures?” and, before Marco who had started to laugh could answer, a few others in the audience, in parody of the TalkBack interface, shouted out, “six finger complex polygon!” “ four finger irregular rhombus!” and the laughter spread. Marco, of course, said, “No, no weird gestures.”

Target

While I avoided the big corporations who make AT products and the AT vendor presentations themselves, I did attend two from major American corporations and one of them, [Target], the retail giant put on a truly impressive one on Thursday morning. It’s presenter, Laurie Merryman of Target, is not an old friend of mine, we hadn’t met before the event so this little report may show less of a personal bias than the first two.

What made the Target Presentation so different and so interesting was that they weren’t discussing testing their technology against WCAG and other standards, they already had done that work. Target is doing actual human factors, true usability testing with screen readers so as to not only provide an according to Hoyle accessibility experience but to take the experience to a next level, they’re intent in this effort is to make Target a pleasant shopping experience for people with disabilities. Laurie’s presentation included a description of how they use a program called Loop 11 to monitor each keystroke or gesture a user employs to complete a task and how the software includes other features to gauge user experience. One amazing fact is that the Loop 11 testing tool is also fully accessible and can be used with a screen reader.

Recently, I’ve been working on a fairly large proposal mostly unrelated to accessibility for one of my clients. This effort has forced me to read a lot of research about non-visual literacy. Of more than 600 papers published on this subject in the fifty year period between 1963 and 2013, only 22 had a sample size over 20 participants and only three of those studied more than 30 individuals in its sample. When Laurie said that they had just started this effort at Target and, thus far, had “only 60” participants, I about jumped for joy. I raised my hand and asked, “You’re obviously gathering data to improve the Target customer experience but you are also gathering a lot of information on generic screen reader use, would you guys be willing to share that information with the rest of us?” As US corporations tend to be pathologically secretive and proprietary about data, even data that has little specific value to them, I expected she would say no, instead, to my surprise, she said, “That’s a great idea.” and one of her colleagues shouted, “That’ll be our 2016 presentation.” To a data junky like me, there was no better possible answer.

Data Visualization and SVG

I tend to avoid the social events at conferences. While I write boldly, I’m actually pretty uncomfortable in crowds, I do poorly with small talk, I often get too passionate about a topic to remain polite and I’m happiest when in small groups. Thus, when I decided to attend the Diagram Center reception at CSUN, i was making an exception. I was comforted by knowing that I knew a lot of the people there and my long relationship with Benetech, the parent organization of Diagram Center, I also knew I would have some old friends around.

While I got to meet and talk to a lot of people doing interesting things at this reception and, of course, as I mentioned above, I’m enthusiastic about the Diagram Center’s MathMLCloud project( more to come on it in the upcoming math article), the I got to meet and was tremendously impressed by a W3C guy named Doug Schepers.

My friends Mia and Mallory led me to one of the bedrooms attached to the suite where the reception was held. A few others were already gathered there and my dog, thinking he was at home, jumped onto the bed and took a nap. At the desk, sat Doug Schepers and he was going to show us a prototype of a talking system for SVG based charts and tables. Doug’s prototype used a self voicing interface as he hasn’t found a screen reader to support it yet but it was truly impressive.

Doug’s approach to this problem comes from his background in standards. His work proposes a set of additions to Aria for describing data visualizations. His demo showed only a single bar chart but the potential for this, in a standards based manner, is terrific.

My personal attachment to Doug’s work was that, as VP/Software Engineering at Freedom Scientific, it was my idea and Joe Stephen’s work that got charts and graphs talking in Microsoft Excel. What Doug’s solution provides are the semantics that make reading such information far nicer. I sincerely hope we can find a way to get this experimental code into NVDA to test it while Doug works to get this extension accepted by the people who set the Aria standard.

Hanging Out

A big part of going to CSUN is having the opportunity to meet and hang out with both old friends and friends we hadn’t made yet. First and fore mostly, I had a wonderful time spending time with and getting to know fellow 3MT member, Mallory Van Achterberg, one of the smartest, kindest and absolutely most fun people you’ll ever meet in this business. It was a pleasure to meet Karl Groves, a guy whose work I’ve admired but never got the chance to meet in person and a person with whom I’d have probably been friends as we spent a lot of time in the same places with a bunch of the same people, separated only by the time dimension. Donal Fitzpatrick, did a terrific presentation on his on going research into a system that will, using haptic cues, provide blind musicians in an orchestra with the information that the conductor does visually and having lunch with Donal afterward was great. As ever, it’s always nice to see the lovely Laura Legendary, even if only for a few fleeting moments. I can’t list everyone whom I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to but, suffice it to say, I’m grateful for every moment of your time.

I want to thank Steve Sawczyn and Paul Adam for the work they did on our “Dueling Mobile panel. It was originally my idea, I suggested the panel in a blog article I wrote here last summer but Steve and Paul did all of the real work. I got to make a few wisecracks and MC the event but Paul and Steve did all of the heavy lifting. You can find our HTML Obstacle Course on Paul’s web site and you can use it to test your mobile accessibility as well.

Lastly, I would like to thank all of you who came up to me to tell me that you read and enjoy the blog. I don’t ask for donations so but I do gain a lot of satisfaction when readers find me and tell me they enjoy my work. This blog would be a lot less interesting if it wasn’t for the readers who help keep our hit count up, write comments and tweet out the links. I appreciate all of your support.

Conclusions

While we may be experiencing an uprising of democratically run and user funded leaders emerging, there is a lot of important work happening in the more traditional areas in accessibility as well. I see no leadership from the traditional AT players but academia, independent ventures, the standards community and the corporate world are doing some very interesting things. This article is by no means complete, lots of other interesting developments are happening all of the time and I’m glad to be an observer as we all get to watch the technology move forward.