Two Deaths

Introduction

I rarely write anything too personal on this blog anymore. I did articles about my life when I wrote BlindConfidential but I’ve grown a bit more private and don’t live in an entirely “open source” manner any longer. I enjoyed sharing some tidbits of my reality back then but haven’t the time or energy to do so any longer.

This piece, however, is about the recent deaths of two people who were my good friends, two individuals who could hardly be more different but both whom effected me in a deep and personal way.

As the deaths, one on August 21 and the other on August 23 of this year, came so close together, I’m going to write about both of these wonderful men together in this article. One was a very smart, super sharp blind hacker, the other was a former co-worker who, over the years, had been one of the dearest people in my life. What the two had in common was a tremendous generosity of time and spirit, a willingness to help blind people in ways compatible with their skills and an honest kindness that one rarely experiences in one’s life.

I didn’t know what order I should mention these two remarkable people in this story, I chose alphabetic as it was arbitrary and shows no preference as I cared very much for these two people and picking one over the other would have been impossible. Unlike most of my articles, this is purely a personal essay and will contain no links and virtually no references as the events I will describe herein are not otherwise documented in any public forum.

Bill Acker

If you’re interested in blindness and technology, you probably know the name Bill Acker. A very special part of his life is documented nicely in the book Exploding The Phone, a book you can get on Bookshare or whatever online library you enjoy using. The book describes Bill’s years as one of the original phone phreaks and how he and a number of others, a lot of whom were also blind, effectively cracked the Bell phone system. It’s a terrific read, if you get the version on Audible, it’s read by one of the protagonists, it’s a terrific bit of hacking history and reads as smoothly as a novel. If you read this blog, you will enjoy Exploding The Phone. Thus, I’m not going to talk about Bill’s years as an outlaw phone phreak here as a much better writer did a whole book on that scene and there’s little I can add.

My personal relationship with Bill began when he and my friend Janina Sajka spent hours on the phone with me helping me get a Fedora distribution installed and talking with SpeakUp, an older, text based screen reader for GNU/Linux systems. If I’m remembering correctly, we spent something like four hours on that call and Bill didn’t hang up until he was certain I had a system I could use effectively. When that conversation started, Bill didn’t know me from Adam, we had not previously been introduced, he didn’t use Windows so my years at the helm of JAWS didn’t impress him. As far as Bill was concerned, I wasn’t the semi-celebrity in the blindness world that I was then, I was just like any other blind person who wanted to use free (as in freedom with a lower case “f”) software and Bill would help any other fellow traveler in this journey. One rarely encounters a perfect stranger so generous with their time.

I went a number of years without talking to Bill again until I posted a long and 100% factually true email on the Eyes Free mailing list detailing how, using only objective measures, that an Android system was roughly 30% accessible compared to the iOS/7 100% score. I sent the email in hopes of receiving feedback on the facts in the article, I might have gotten something very wrong; instead of reasonable and factual responses, I heard a shitstorm of hate from Android fanboys on the mailing list and received a private email from Bill that first asked if we could talk on the phone (I’m a natural writer, I prefer email to voice conversations, especially with people I don’t know too well; Bill was a legendary phone phreak and, of course, prefers voice) and continued to tell me, “you’re absolutely right,” “don’t let the bastards and fanboys bring you down,” “Keep doing what you’re doing, keep fighting the good fight.” As the email was from a blind hacker who played such an important role in the history of this stuff, I called him later that day and we began a friendship with frequent conversations each other to talk abut a million different things, spending hours on end on these calls and I enjoyed every minute of them. I last talked to Bill eleven days ago.

In February of this year, Bill’s oncologist told him there was nothing more that could be done for his aggressive prostate cancer and put Bill on palliative, end of life care. Bill was certain that he would probably pass in April or May. Then, a month or two later, the same oncologist called Bill with an offer to try an off label use of a chemotherapy designed for a different type of cancer for which there was some anecdotal evidence of efficacy for prostate cancer. Bill started getting better almost daily. In each conversation Bill and I had since the highly experimental change in medicine he sounded stronger, more hopeful, energetic and downright happy at some moments.

As Bill started getting better, he and I started working on a couple of projects together. One was an audio documentary that I was going to produce and direct that we had named “Calling Bill In Denver.” The plan was to record literally hours on end of audio of Bill’s voice telling his own story. The documentary would, quite obviously, discuss Bill’s active years as a phone phreak but I had hoped to tell the Bill Acker story that the public hadn’t heard. I wanted to show the whole Bill, the blind long distance hitchhiking stories, his atheism and resentment of the constant and overt Christian evangelism in the American blind community, his long marriage and love for his wonderful wife, his years at the phone company, his friendships with many other hackers, blind or otherwise, his single phone conversation with the late radical leader Abbie Hoffman, his deep and profound dedication to free, libre, open source software (FLOSS) and so many of the aspects of Bill’s amazing life that few people knew. Very sadly, the single recording session we were able to get done, two or more hours of discussion, was the victim of a bug in either the VOIP client, OS X or AudioHijack Pro that left a loud buzz throughout the entire thing. What I believe was Bill’s final interview appears lost to buggy software.

Over the past three months, Bill and I had also discussed the possibility of his returning to work. As recently as our final call together, after a number of conversations, official meetings and such, he had received and accepted an offer to take over as accessibility coordinator for Free Software Foundation (FSF). In that last phone call, Bill sounded great and I agreed to help as his back-up as a volunteer and we started talking about a plan to make all FSF/GNU branded software accessible.

Thus, while Bill had been very sick and nearing death for a pretty long time, both he and I reached the point in which we honestly believed that Bill would come through and live to fight the free software battle another day. Thus, Bill’s death felt sudden to me because he seemed so filled with life in that last call.

I would like to publicly recognize my dear friend Shelley Segal for an act of kindness she did for Bill earlier this year that made him incredibly happy and about which he was tremendously grateful. If you don’t know of Shelley, she’s an Australian singer/songwriter with a beautiful voice and tremendous skill in writing lyrics that have touched both Bill and I with profound impact. Bill first became aware of Shelley and her music when I wrote a blog article about a CD she release a couple of years back called “An Atheist Album.” While Bill was going through chemotherapy, he told me that he would listen to this album over and over, it expressed his world view with such a delightful voice and lyric that it brought him tremendous comfort while he suffered the horrible side effects of his treatment regimen. He told me he would play Shelley’s music for other patients and that they were comforted as well.
When Bill moved to end of life care, he asked me to introduce him to Shelly and I gladly did. Shelley will next be performing in Denver this coming October and because Bill was uncertain if he’d live long enough to attend the performance, Shelley arranged a private concert for him and played a show for a single person over a VOIP client, live from her studio in Melbourne. Shelley’s generosity and truly loving spirit gave Bill the opportunity to enjoy a live performance and have a terrific conversation with his favorite recording artist. Bill’s expressed his gratitude repeatedly and all I did was send a single email introducing one friend to another, Shelley did the real work and made Bill very happy in a very hard time at the end of his life. Please, if you go see Shelley on her upcoming tour, thank her for the kindness she showed Bill, she’ll, with her tremendous modesty, say it “was no big deal” but, for Bill, the hour or so they spent together was very important.

Bill asked me to introduce him to a few other of my friends for whom he held a high level of admiration and I was able to fulfill a few of his wishes but we never had the opportunity to introduce him to Tyler Spivey, a young blind hacker whom Bill new since Tyler was a precocious 12 year old hanging out in hacker forums and such. I think Bill wanted to pass the torch to a new generation and nobody other than Tyler came close to embodying Bill’s hacker ethic in that age group.

I will miss Bill terribly, our entire community will miss Bill greatly and all hackers, whether they knew Bill or not, have lost one of their great champions and, for all of us, this is a very sad time.

Joe Simparosa

When I first applied for the job I would ultimately land at Henter-Joyce, I did a handful of phone interviews with Jerry Bowman, Ted Henter and Glen Gordon. I apparently impressed them sufficiently and they flew me down to St. Petersburg to do my on-site interviews with the people who would either become my fellow executives at the company or who I would be managing. I was flying to Florida for a top position in the company leading JAWS, their premier product. When I deplaned in Tampa, I was greeted by an older gentleman who would identify himself as “Joe.”

As we drove from the airport to have dinner, I asked, “So, what do you do at HJ?” Joe proudly announced, “I’m the flunky, the driver, I do odd jobs.” I asked, “Then, we’re meeting programmers and managers at the restaurant?” Joe said, “Nope, I’m bringing you to Denny’s.” My first thoughts ran to, “pretty classy operation, they fly a guy to interview for a top position and only send the flunky to take him out for dinner?” By the end of that meal, Joe and I had become friends and we remained so until he passed away last Friday.

During that first meal, Joe told me his life story. “When I got out of the navy, a buddy and I stole a car in Philadelphia and started driving west, stealing gas as we went. The car died in Iowa so I got a job there as a meat packer and did that until I retired.” He described the first time he met Ted Henter, “They did their dealer meeting at the hotel where I worked as the van driver, I thought he was great so I went to him and asked, ‘Mister Henter, do you need a flunky?’ and Ted hired me on the spot.”

As Joe was our driver, he and I would spend a lot of time in the Henter’s Chevy Suburban going back and forth to the airport, to meetings and other events around Tampa Bay and occasionally all of the way to Orlando. We spent hours talking about the sorts of things Joe enjoys: baseball, hockey, weather, pretty girls but, more than anything, Joe wanted to talk about helping blind people. After the merger that turned Henter-Joyce, Blazie Engineering and Arkenstone into Freedom Scientific, Lee Hamilton, demonstrating his amazing lack of human understanding, insisted that Joe retire. I’m happy to say that I organized his retirement dinner at a local dog track because Joe loved the track, he loved the dogs and he loved the HJ gang and we were able to bring all of them together for him. As the party was breaking up and we were counting our winnings and/or losses from our $2 bets, Joe came to me and asked, “Did you arrange this?” I said that I had and I got the biggest bear hug from a man who resembled Santa Claus with a white beard and big belly started crying. It was the most moving moment I can recall having in the six years I spent at that company.

When Lee hamilton forced me to resign and started his tremendous efforts (nine separate law suit attempts) to shut me up, I refused and continued blogging and telling the truth. Then, Hamilton took his attacks on me to a personal level and forced the remaining friends I had at FS to either cease communication with me or risk unemployment. This became a terribly lonely time for me, at FS we worked incredibly long hours, almost every friend I had in that geographic area were also FS employees and few were willing to risk the wrath of Hamilton to spend time with or even talk to me. Telling the truth is a good thing, I’m glad I did but, when I set out on that path, I didn’t expect the retribution to be so swift, harsh and nearly constant for more than two years.

During this miserable period in my life, Joe, Ted and I would get together for lunch weekly and Joe turned from being a good friend into being a spare grandpa for me and my wife. Who can’t love having Santa as a spare grandfather?

In the years since that time, my life has grown much better, Ted Henter moved to Panama but Joe and I continued going to lunch together as often as we could. Like other old men, Joe would call me on the phone to talk abut those topics that he enjoyed. Sometimes, I’d get a call from Joe and all he’d want to say is, “It’s raining pretty hard, huh?” He wasn’t calling to talk about the weather immediately outside my front door but, rather, to make sure I had some company and to make sure I knew that someone out there from those days at HJ still loved me.

I’m finding it hard to write more about Joe. The rest is too personal, too painful but, suffice it to say that, once, Joe actually saved my life.

I will always love Joe and his lovely wife Bunny, who survives him, my own grandparents had died years earlier and it was great having a spare pair when I really needed them. Joe will live in my heart forever.

My Favorite Rock And Roll Cover Songs

Introduction

About a year ago, my friend Bryan Smart, knowing I’m a serious music fan, suggested I try Spotify. I loaded it onto my iPhone 5S and, after a few days of enjoying the no cost version, I bought the $10 per month premium edition. In the past month or so, Apple released its music streaming service and, as it came with a three month no cost trial, I thought I’d give it a whirl as well.

When Bryan first suggested Spotify to me, I was reluctant to try it out. I have a couple of thousand CDs all ripped in a lossless format and an old Macintosh pushing out my music bits to a high end DAC played through a pretty high end stereo. When I’m listening privately, I will often use my iPhone but attach it to a different high end DAC that is plugged into a vacuum tube based audio amplifier and then into my high end headphones. I readily admit, I’m an audio gear geek and sometimes enjoy messing around with the electronics as much as I do listening to the music itself. With Spotify set to its highest bit rate, playing through either system sounds great so, if you’re one of us gear geeks, you will probably be happy with the quality of its recordings.

I can’t say much about the audio quality of AppleMusic. I’m in my Cambridge, Massachusetts home for the summer and didn’t bring along all of my audio stuff as that would require a van and we’ve only a Prius station wagon.

The Accessibility Paragraph

The underlying theme of this blog is technological accessibility, primarily for people with vision impairment. This is an article about some songs that make me happy when I hear them. So, to make the connection, I’ll say, both AppleMusic and Spotify are almost 100% accessible on iOS/8.4 and, in my very limited testing, on the iOS/9 public beta as well.

Exploring New Music

As I wrote above, I own a few thousand CDs. As they average about 45 minutes each, played end to end, my personal music collection would take something more than 2000 hours of listening time to hear all of it. With Spotify and/or AppleMusic, with 30 million or more songs in their libraries, I now have more than 1.5 million hours or 62,500 days or nearly 175 years of music to which I can listen. As both Apple and Spotify’s catalogues increase daily, these two services provide what amounts to an infinite series of songs to which I can listen in my lifetime.

Getting Silly

While my CD collection is pretty large, it also tends to be fairly serious. Certainly, I’ve the canon of punk rock, The Clash, Ramones, Patti Smith and so on. I’ve a bit of “classic rock” including albums by The Rolling Stones, Cream, led Zeppelin and others. I’ve a ton of blues albums, largely by acts led by great harmonica players. I’ve a little bit of country of the traditional style. I’ve a ton of Bob Dylan recordings and the only category into which he fits comfortably is “Bob Dylan.” Most of the collection, however, is jazz, classical, opera and other genres that tend to be called “serious.”

In person, I’m not terribly serious . I enjoy humor, comedy and I enjoy music that contains these characteristics as well. One of the really nice things about both Spotify and AppleMusic is that I have access to songs, albums and artists that I would have never purchased. I enjoy novelty and comedic lyrics but, more than any other musical weirdness, I really enjoy oddball cover versions of songs, especially when the cover version takes the song into a different and interesting direction. The rest of this article is a list of some of my favorite covers that can all be found on AppleMusic or Spotify.

Definition of “Cover Song”

In an according to Hoyle definition of a “cover song,” the term can be applied to virtually any song performed by an act for which it wasn’t specifically written. This, however, is such a broad definition that could be construed to include the entire Frank Sinatra catalogue as, excepting a very few of his songs, they were all written by people other than him and many were recorded by a lot of different artists. In fact, for this article, I’m ignoring most of the jazz and blues genres as even the top artists, people like Miles Davis or Buddy Guy, mostly recorded songs written and performed by others who came before them. Jazz and blues are special because the songs themselves don’t change much while the interpretations and arrangements make all of the difference.

Thus, for this piece, I’m narrowing the definition of “cover song” to one that means a version of a song that takes the original and, in a humorous or stylistic way, changes it drastically.

I’m also going to attempt to include only off beat, rarely played cover versions of songs where the original or another version was the more well known one. I do include two singles that made it to the top forty but, for the most part, this list contains lesser known recordings of fairly popular songs.

I’m also going to leave out songs that fall more into the folk tradition and have been covered by many different artists so don’t expect to read a passage on Robert Johnson’s Crossroads as, while we know who wrote the original, the myriad other versions have turned playing it into more of an exercise in folk music than in more standard song craft. If, like me, you’re a fan of the blues and American roots music, though, you should spend some time listening to the small number of recordings Johnson left before dying at age 27. In the early sixties, Bob Dylan, in an article he wrote about Robert Johnson said, “It was like Johnson was playing for an audience only he could see and that audience was the future…” so, as you live in that future, give Johnson a serious listen.

Let the Silliness Begin

Just a quick note to the readers, while the first song in this list may be my favorite cover song of all time, the rest of the songs are listed in no particular order, not by my personal preference, not alphabetically, just in the order that I wrote them down. As I do with many of the articles I publish here, my “research” on this section did require some time spent googling to find specific facts and talking to my little group of insiders for additional ideas. So, thanks to the people who helped with input on this list and to Wikipedia and other web sites for making it so easy for me to track down the details.

Son Of A Preacher Man by Pansy Division

The song Son Of A Preacher Man was a hit for Dusty Springfield and used to great effect in the movie “Pulp Fiction.” The song is one of lost love and desire and, when Springfield sings it, “Preacher Man” is a good, song and would be her biggest hit. Pansy Division, a now defunct all gay San Francisco based punk band took Son Of A Preacher Man and, simply by changing the character telling the story from female to male makes a dramatic difference. That Pansy Division also turns it from pop into punk makes this version of the song all the more terrific. I found the Pansy Division of this song on AppleMusic but not on Spotify.

My Way by Sid Vicious

My Way was originally written by the terrific songwriter and singer Paul Anka. The most famous, some would say the canonical version was that recorded by Frank Sinatra who, in many ways, made My Way into his personal theme, usually only performing it as an encore. After the Sex Pistols broke up (I wonder if they’re the shortest lived act in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame), the now late Sid Vicious and his also dead then girlfriend Nancy Spungen worked to start a new punk act with Sid out in front. After selecting a few of the usual suspects kicking around the New York punk scene, the Sid Vicious band did a handful of rehearsals and got booked to play a weekend at the New York nightclub, Max’s Kansas City. All three of these performances were recorded directly from the sound board in the club and resulted in the posthumous Sid Sings live album which featured his rendition of My Way, a must hear cover of the Paul Anka classic. Sid’s version is pure punk, he forgets some of the lyrics, adds a few of his own and owns the song. Give it a listen on your favorite streaming service.

Money Changes Everything By Cindy Lauper

As I wrote above, I wanted to avoid including anything that either became too popular or are considered the canonical versions of the songs being covered. Cindy Lauper’s version of Money Changes Everything from her first solo album is one of the two exceptions I will make in this article. If one goes back and listens to the original version, recorded by a Georgia based punk act called The Brains in 1978, they’ll hear a singer deliver a depressing, dirge like song lamenting the loss of his girlfriend to another man far wealthier than himself.

When Lauper worked on “Money Changes Everything” in the studio, though, her producers tried to encourage her to do a version as if it was a Bob Dylan styled folk rock item. Cindy refused and insisted, “No! This isn’t a Dylan song, play it like London Calling, it’s more like a Clash song.” Apparently after a lot of convincing, Cindy got her crew to give a “pop punk” version a try. Lauper turns the song from one in which a male protagonist sings about losing his gal to one in which the protagonist is the woman ditching her guy because, indeed, “money changes everything.” Lauper’s performance is powerful, well worth a listen and is about two steps more “punk” than the original.

Money (That’s What I Want) by The Flying Lizards

First recorded by Motown hit master and songwriter, Barrett Strong and written by the legendary Barry Gordy in 1958, Money (That’s What I Want) would become the first hit single from that most influential of record labels. Strong’s version, however, never received the commercial success of the version recorded a number of years later by The Beatles in which John Lennon and George Harrison would attack the song with guitars making the orchestral Motown version sound like it was performed by sleeping musicians.

My favorite of the many versions of this song, though, is that released by The Flying Lizards on their only album. *Money (That’s What I Want),” opens with the lines, “The best things in life are free, But you can keep them for the birds and bees” that fall into the chorus, “Money, that’s what I want.” In the annals of rock and roll lyrics, this song may be the single most cynical. The Flying Lizards drop the driving guitars we loved in the Beatles version and had none of the Motown production values. Recorded on a Tascam Portastudio four track cassette tape based mixing board and multi-track recording device available back then in most pawn shops for a few bucks, The Flying Lizards stripped the song of any pretense, the lyrics are delivered in a near deadpan monotone and the instrumentation is minimal. If you’re seeking cynicism, give this version of this song a listen.

Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band By Jimi Hendrix

Like most rock and roll records, The Beatles released their album Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on a Tuesday. If the oft repeated story is true, the night before the release, Paul McCartney and a few of his friends, including Jimi Hendrix, gathered at Abbey Road Studios to listen to the album together. As the story goes, Sir Paul proudly pronounced, “This stuff is hard to play, we won’t be hearing too many bands covering Sargent Pepper any time soon.” On the Friday night of that same week, Paul and his buddies went to a London nightclub to see Jimi Hendrix play and Jimi and The Experience opened up the show with a cover of “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” You can and should find and listen to Jimi’s version, it’s on Spotify but I couldn’t find it on AppleMusic.

Jimi Hendrix spent much of his career performing cover songs. Some of his biggest hits, Watchtower, Like A Rolling Stone, Wild Thing and Hey Joe were all covers. Many of his lesser known songs came directly from the catalogue of blues standards. Jimi wasn’t special for his songwriting skills but, rather, for his interpretations, his arrangements and his way of making any song into something entirely his own. If you haven’t guessed by now, Jimi is also one of my very favorite artists and I’m really fond of his version of “Sargent Pepper.”

Surfing Bird by The Ramones

I love punk rock and, when in late 1976, I got to see The Ramones play as an opening act at Max’s Kansas City my life changed and I sold my soul to the genre. Thus, when I sat down to write this article, I knew that I would be including at least one Ramones song and, as I didn’t want this piece to turn into an article about my favorite Ramones covers (they recorded dozens of them), I forced myself to pick a single favorite. this caused a bit of internal debate, should I feature Needles and Pins a song written by Sonny Bono and recorded by The Searchers or if I should choose Surfing Bird, a very silly song originally recorded by the Beach Boys. I chose the latter.

The Ramones, for all of the wild stories that live on about them were, if nothing else, committed New Yorkers. When The Ramones became somewhat popular and started making rock star money, Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee, instead of running out and enjoying all of the luxury their new found wealth could provide didn’t even move out of their rent controlled Greenwich Village apartments. Lyrically, while certainly less serious, The Ramones were deeply “New York” and, of course, the Beach Boys were the quintessential California act.

The Ramones took the ultra west coast Surfing Bird and rocked it out so hard that it took on what I can only describe as a New York feel. There’s no surf guitar sound in this version, just straight ahead 4/4 power chord driven rock and roll in the key of G.

I Love Rock And Roll By Joan Jett

I Love Rock And Roll was written by Alan Merrill and Jake Hooker and recorded that year by their band, Arrows. To be perfectly honest, prior to looking up the song on Wikipedia, I’d never heard of this version, this band or these people. Fortunately, I have AppleMusic and Spotify and was able to pause in my writing to give it a listen. This version of I Love Rock And Roll, while containing the elements that would make Joan Jett’s version so great, in general falls flat. Arrow never allows the sparser portions of the song get quiet enough and fall far short of the vocal assault Jett provides on her recording.

In 1982, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts took this song into the studio and left with one of the greatest rock and roll anthems of all time. Jett and her band deliver the song with power, energy and raw enthusiasm. Joan Jett’s I Love Rock And Roll isn’t just a great cover song, it’s a definite member of the list of the all time greatest rock and roll songs.

I Will Survive By Cake

I Will Survive was first released by American singer Gloria Gaynor in 1978 and received the Grammy Award for best disco song of the year. Unlike most disco songs, though, Gaynor sings without backing vocals and uses few studio effects in the original. Gaynor sings with great strength in this anthem of surviving a failed relationship and proudly boasts that she will carry on without the person to whom she is singing. While I’m not a huge fan of the disco genre, this is one of the songs that transcend stereotypes and I enjoy it a lot.

Then, in 1996, a band called Cake covered I Will Survive on their album Fashion Nugget. Cake transformed the song from one of strength and individual resolve to a sad rock ballad sung by a man who finds an ex-girlfriend in his home. In the Cake version, when the vocalist sings, “I should have changed the fucking lock, I’d have made you leave your key, if I’d have known for just one second you’d be back to bother me…” he’s not speaking from a position of strength displayed by Gaynor in her disco version but, rather, the protagonist of the Cake version has found a stalker in his home and simply hopes the woman will just go away. These two versions couldn’t be more different and I hope readers listen to both as I think you’ll enjoy them separately and together.

Bohemian Rhapsody By William Shatner

As I’ve written on this blog before, I’ve long been a fan of the rock act Queen and, like millions of others elsewhere, I love their song, Bohemian Rhapsody from their A Night At The Opera album.

In addition to containing some of Brian May’s terrific guitar work, Bohemian Rhapsody shows off Freddy Mercury’s amazing vocal range and the band’s terrific skills at producing songs with a big sound. Live and recorded, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is always a crowd pleaser.

Years ago, shortly after Freddy Mercury died and Queen disbanded, I went to the old Boston Garden with some friends o see the band Guns and Roses. Queen’s guitarist had started a solo act called The Brian May Band and I had the unfortunate coincidence of being one of the very few people who ever got to see them perform as they opened up for GNR that night. May’s act was a mix of traditional rock and roll cover songs and a lot of songs by Queen. I don’t recall who sang Bohemian Rhapsody in May’s band that night but I can say that it was the worst version of the song I’ve ever heard. The Boston Garden audience, probably out of respect for Brian’s great work in Queen, didn’t boo or jeer but, fairly quietly, wandered out of the arena and got on line for more beer or in the queue for the restrooms.

Simply put, Bohemian Rhapsody is a very hard song to cover. The combination of Freddy’s tremendous vocal range added to May’s terrific guitar playing makes this one of the most difficult of the great rock and roll songs to play. But, one version, that by William Shatner is both so awful and so wonderful at once that it deserves a mention on this list of my all time favorite covers.

Shatner, known for playing Captain Kirk on Star Trek among other things in his long career as an actor, is not known for his singing. His version of Bohemian Rhapsody is, rather than sung, more recited rhythmically. Shatner changes mood and occasionally shouts and, in a version dripping with irony, he delivers a version well worth a listen, if only for a laugh.

Satisfaction By Devo

Back in the early days of what would later be called “punk” and/or “new wave” music, I lived in Lower Manhattan and went out to clubs like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, A7, Mudd Club, Ritz, Irving Plaza, Danceteria and many other hot spots that featured new music on a near nightly basis. Thus, by a coincidence of timing and geography, I got to see a lot of great acts perform live in their formative years. One band, however, that slipped through without my getting to see them play in a small venue was Devo whom I would first see, along with millions of others, for the first time when they performed on Saturday Night Live. Devo did their version of the Rolling Stones Satisfaction and the following day, I ran out and bought their debut album and would see them perform live a number of times since.

The original Rolling Stones Satisfaction features an iconic guitar riff played by Keith Richard that is so memorable that many can identify the song by the second note he plays. The vocals are pure Mick Jagger, smooth and cool while rocking and aggressive. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Satisfaction is a simple, straight ahead 4/4 rock and roll song based in a simple riff that even beginner guitar players can learn to master. Satisfaction, therefore, is also one of the most covered songs in the history of rock and roll with nearly every junior high dance band including a version at nearly every dance for more than five decades.

The Devo version stands out as special in that, following the band’s philosophy of human de-evolution, they perform a deconstructed version of the song. Instead of Keith Richard’s sustained guitar line, the Devo version is played in staccato bursts and, where Mick Jagger sounded smooth and cool, the Devo singer goes choppy and nearly robotic in his interpretation. The Rolling Stones version is obvious in its raw sexuality; Devo plays it stark and removes any double entendre from the lyric.

Both the original version and the Devo cover are well worth a listen as they are so very different while both being really good rock and roll songs.

Conclusions

This is by no means a definitive list of every great rock and roll cover song but it’s a bunch of them that I personally enjoy for a variety of reasons and hope you may enjoy them as well. It’s early August, I didn’t feel like writing a serious blog article about technology, accessibility or any of the more challenging subjects I usually discuss here. I thought a piece about cover songs would be fun, I enjoyed writing it and hope you enjoyed reading it as well.

As this is by no means a complete list of great rock and roll cover songs, I’d very much enjoy hearing your favorites so please post them in the comments section below.

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.