An Open Letter To Mark Riccobono

A Note To Our readers

Mark Riccobono is the new president of NFB, that nation’s largest group advocating for people with vision impairment. I find him an interesting choice as president of the organization. This is a letter Ive drafted to him regarding NFB, technology and its recent resolution asking Apple to require accessibility for submission to its Appstore.

The Letter

Dear Mark,

If you don’t know who I am, as a matter of introduction, I’ve been working in access technology and accessibility since 1998. I’m a former VP/Software Engineering at Freedom Scientific and have been something of an accessibility researcher, advocate, activist, gadfly, loudmouth and crackpot since. You can learn all about me by reading the blog where this letter has been posted and in the archive of BlindConfidential, the very popular blog I wrote for a lot of years.

To start, please accept my sincere congratulations on your election to the presidency of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). I’m highly encouraged that NFB now has someone at the top of the organization who seems (to me at least) to have a grasp of the world of technology, research and the tools that a blind person needs to compete in professional settings, in schools and to enjoy a connected life in the information age. I look forward to seeing how your insights effect NFB policy and actions as we move into the future.

I would also like to congratulate you on having successfully led the project that resulted in your being able to drive a car at Daytona. While I live in a big city and rarely need to get into a car for any reason, I recognize the profound level of freedom that could be accorded blind people if they could operate a motor vehicle independently. That NFB could work with Virginia Tech to make such an amazingly innovative system is, indeed, a tremendous achievement and I look forward to seeing it evolve into the future.

As I’m a technology specialist, I read the NFB resolution stating that it will work with Apple to improve the accessibility of third party applications on its AppStore with great interest. I also read the piece you wrote further explaining the resolution and found it informative as well.

Having read both, it is my understanding that the resolution states that NFB believes that Apple should require accessibility compliance as a condition of inclusion in their AppStore. I agree with this assertion entirely.

I was also happy to read the whereas clauses in the resolution and enjoyed reading how you summarized such in your article. It is heartening to hear NFB state publicly, in a resolution, that Apple is the clear leader in accessibility and that Apple has done more than any other OS vendor to accommodate our needs in their technology. I agree with these statements entirely as well.

If, however, I attended the NFB convention as a delegate (an incredibly unlikely event as I’m not an NFB member), I would, although I agree entirely with the language of the resolution, have had to vote against its passing. While everything the resolution says is excellent, the problems are with what it doesn’t say and how its passing was perceived in the community of blind technology experts.

If this resolution, instead of saying, “We resolve that Apple…” instead said, “We resolve that Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and all OS vendors with an online software store…” I would be writing an article celebrating its passing. Singling out Apple, however, even with the statements that they already do a better job with accessibility than any other vendor, is not in my mind an acceptable statement to make.

Specifically, this resolution asks Apple to ensure accessibility of third party applications at a level which NFB has not resolved to ask Amazon, Google and Microsoft to do for applications that carry their brand names. As the whereas clauses clearly state, Apple is already the best in this space and asking Apple to do something regarding software over which it has no control is, as I said above, an excellent idea but, in absence of insisting that the rest of the industry first reach parity with accessibility on the Apple systems for software over which they have complete control, I find raising the bar of requirements for Apple in exclusion of its competitors to do the same to be a statement that will, at best, cause confusion in the world of technology for people with vision impairment. The resolution, because of what it didn’t include, is perceived as a criticism of the best player in the game while ignoring similar and much worse problems at Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

Please also realize that this is 2014, a time in history where a long written resolution followed by an article explaining such by the president of NFB will be read by very few people interested in the subject. I write long form essays and I’m an accessibility nerd of the highest order, hence, I’m the kind of guy who actually reads such things. I’m sad to report, though, that few of my peers in the world of blindness and technology would take the time to read through such and or take the time to fully understand the nuances therein. This is the age of 140 character conversations and, while not true, the perception of this latest NFB resolution on Twitter is, “NFB slams Apple again” and “Riccobono doubles down on Apple slam.” I agree that these summaries are unfair but we don’t live in a fair world where everyone takes the time to read the details. perception is tremendously important and, speaking on behalf of other blind technology professionals to whom I’ve spoken in the past week, NFB has yet another major problem in the hearts and minds of this community. I don’t know how to fix this problem but it’s something about which NFB needs to be aware if it hopes to regain credibility among this admittedly elite class of blind professionals.

I believe that you can be an agent of change within NFB. I’m happy to hear that NFBCS has a new leader and I hope to see NFB improve its statements on technology as we move forward. While I may or may not agree with NFB resolutions that are passed in the future, speaking for myself and others to whom I’ve spoken, simply making NFB public statements consistent when addressing technology vendors will help substantially with this credibility issue. If you’re going to resolve that one technology vendor do something, please resolve that they all do it and you’ll find that some people like me, vocal critics of NFB in the past, will start paying attention and, perhaps, join and become active in NFB in the future.

In conclusion, I’m very happy to see you as the new president of NFB. I’m excited about progress on your automobile project. I agree with the text of the aforementioned resolution but I’m concerned with seeing Apple singled out for technological developments out of its control without a similar standard being applied to Amazon, Google and Microsoft for software entirely under their control. It seems very inconsistent to me and those to whom I’ve spoken. NFB has a perception problem among blind technology professionals and consistency in statements about technology would go a long way to allowing NFB to regain credibility in this community.

Sincerely,
Chris “Gonz blinko” Hofstader
7/23/2014

Job Access With Bugs?

Introduction

For years, I’ve heard anecdotal reports that JAWS, the world’s most popular screen reader, has more bugs, is less reliable, more unstable and of a generally poorer quality than some of its competitors. In that same period, starting in 1998 and continuing until today, I have never seen a single bit of quantitative evidence demonstrating that this is true. I hear people around the community make these claims based on personal experience, experience that is certainly valid but no one has published a scorecard listing every feature in every application supported by each screen reader, tested each and published the results. I’ve also never seen any detailed reports of reliability, only the same sorts of personal stories.

In this article, I want to explore some of the generally accepted notions about screen reader quality and functionality and ask why, if JAWS is such a bad piece of software, does it maintain a marketshare over 50% and why does it still dominate in most professional settings. Furthermore, I want to explore some of the issues discussed in my article, “Remembering GW Micro” that I published last month.

As a matter of disclosure, I don’t use JAWS. For the most part, my primary system is a Macbook Air running OSX Mavericks with the VoiceOver screen reader. I do use Windows with some frequency but, on that system, I use NVDA because I really like how it works in FireFox. This is a second theme I hope to explore in this piece, does the opportunity provided for career advancement, educational opportunities and other advanced computer usage provided in JAWS more valuable than having fewer bugs if, indeed, JAWS does have more bugs than its competitors.

Ted henter

Before there was a JAWS, Ted henter, its inventor and leader for many years, came to a realization. Specifically, while some talking computer technology had already emerged, none of it was vocationally oriented. In those days, Ted worked for Dean Blazie, a close friend of his until today, where they made the Braille & Speak (BNS), a truly remarkable device in its day. A blind user could do a lot with a BNS but it provided no access to the programs that one might use in a job or university.

To solve this problem, Ted found an investor and started working on the DOS version of a program he called Job Access With Speech. From day one, the defining value behind JAWS was to provide access to professional situations and, to this day, it remains the dominant access technology for blind people in professional settings.

GW Micro Marketing

I joined Henter-Joyce in October of 1998. Among the first things I noticed was that the GW Micro web site claimed that Window-Eyes was “rock solid.” I’ve heard this claim repeated in their marketing materials and in reports from their users. What I’ve never seen is the scorecard I mention in the introduction of this article. I try to base my opinions in evidence, when I did my evaluation of Android, I tested every single feature that came out-of-the-box on my Nexus/7. Before I make a claim of quality or lack thereof, I try to perform as full an evaluation that I can or find a published report that contains such written by a credible source. In the 16 years since I’ve been following screen readers, I’ve never seen a single report card of this sort for Windows screen readers, just lots of personal reports, lots of anecdote without evidence.

Does the lack of quantitative evidence mean that the assertions that JAWS is less stable than its competitors are untrue? Absolutely not, it just means that there is no data that can answer this question so I’ll leave it unanswered. It’s not unreasonable for someone making a purchasing decision to rely on the anecdotal reports written by other users as, in the lack of real data, its all a blind consumer might have.

Regarding Window-Eyes, when Microsoft announced that one could get a copy at no extra cost if they owned Office, I grabbed a copy. I did not perform an extensive evaluation of the product as the reliability problems I found in the first half hour of using the product convinced me that continuing with my evaluation was a waste of time. Specifically, on the Windows login screen, if one mistypes their password, Window-Eyes does not read the error box that comes up saying that something was wrong beyond the “OK” button so a user doesn’t know what he’s saying “OK” to. Then, I discovered that when a user launches Window-Eyes, it may not read applications that were opened before it was started – a problem that does not exist in either JAWS or NVDA. Others whom I trust intimately have reported other major bugs as well. If Window-Eyes is, indeed, “rock solid,” I don’t see it.

Meanwhile, Window-Eyes remains the only screen reader on Windows that still does not support either touch gestures for navigation or Aria on the Internet (yeah, I know, GW Micro says it’s coming but it took them a decade to get Java supported so “is coming” may mean in 2025). Window-Eyes, in my mind, remains highly buggy and as feature poor as anything on the market today.

Let’s Look At Some Numbers

According to the 2014 WebAIM statistics, JAWS holds a marketshare in excess of 50% with NVDA approaching 20% and Window-Eyes falling in with about six points. To make the arithmetic easier, let’s say that JAWS has 8 times the number of users as does Window-Eyes. Hence, it is run on 8 times as wide a variety of hardware, in 8 times as many sets of personal settings, setups, and Windows configurations. Let’s also assume that there are 8 times as many JAWS users discussing their problems online and, therefore, it’s 8 times as likely that a JAWS bug will be seen by the Internet reading public as would a bug in Window-Eyes. Is it possible that JAWS much broader user base and much larger exposure in online media (formal and otherwise) may lead one to believe that it is actually more buggy? In absence of the aforementioned scorecard, we cannot know.

JAWS Broader Feature Set

No one questions that JAWS is more feature rich than any other screen reader. It became so because of Ted’s commitment to providing a tool that blind people could use in professional settings. As far as anyone can tell, JAWS is still dominant in these settings because of its feature set, features which are absolutely necessary for many people to hold a job or further their education.

After I wrote the article describing my memories of GW Micro, a reader posted a comment reasserting, without any evidence, that GW won’t release a feature until “it’s rock solid” parroting Window-Eyes marketing literature. The person who posted the comment continued by stating that GW didn’t add Java support to Window-Eyes until version 8.0 and suggested that the near decade it took them to catch up to JAWS in this area was because of their commitment to quality. This implies that GW Micro had been working on their Java support for all of that time but chose not to release it until it was “rock solid” which, of course, is false. GW Micro didn’t add Java support until they were absolutely forced to do so by market demands.

What if the JAWS team had also decided to wait many years before they added Java support? A year after JAWS first supported the Java Access Bridge, University of Florida (a in the top twenty public engineering colleges in the US) decided to change its computer science and computer engineering curriculum from being based in the Scheme programming language (a Lisp like language developed at MIT in the sixties) to Java. A blind student in that program could have, if he so chose, used Window-Eyes, it was among the approved AT provided by the university, but, if he had made that choice, he would have had to drop out of the program as, using Window-Eyes, he could not possibly have done his class work. I suppose that the person who wrote the post considered this when he posted his statement and I suppose also that he thinks that waiting a decade for your AT to catch up to the reality of the technological world is also a good idea. our hypothetical blind student had no choice, he either chose JAWS or he failed out of college.

Personally, I think that saving that student’s college career is the most important thing a screen reader team can do with its time but, as always, I’d like to hear your comments.

A Data Point I’d Like To See

WebAIM statistics are nice especially because they run year to year and allow us to observe trends. It’s also a self selecting survey which, like all self selecting surveys, is wrought with problems. Is one screen reader under represented in the report while another is over represented? This is data that the WebAIM report cannot answer. It would be impractical to expand the WebAIM survey to include some other more personal information about screen reader users. Unfortunately, there is very little other data published that can tell us much about the make up of the screen reading using public.

The data points I’d like to hear, in a real, well constructed study, would help us learn much more about the efficacy of a particular screen reader. Specifically, I’d like to learn what is the median income of an employed JAWS users versus the median income of users of other screen readers. I’d also like to learn the average level of education accomplished by users of JAWS versus the other screen readers. Based purely in anecdote and in complete absence of real statistical data, I’m willing to bet anyone $100 that JAWS users are A: more likely to be employed, B: make more money and C: more well educated than users of any other screen reader except, perhaps, NVDA. Of course, it would cost much more than a hundred bucks to do the study properly so the bet is probably not worth taking.

As I wrote in “Remembering,” I believe this is why Window-Eyes failed in the market and is why GW Micro is no longer a going concern. JAWS did everything possible to build a base in employment sectors, NVDA came along and grabbed a whole lot of the more technical blinks and SystemAccess grabbed the novice users while Window-Eyes offered nothing special at all.

Fanboyism

Earlier this year, when I published the three Android reviews, I expected and received a spanking from its loyal enthusiasts. Years ago, when I wrote BlindConfidential articles with titles like “Apple Just Sucks,” I got spanked by Apple’s fanboys. When I write critically about Window-Eyes, I hear from its loyal users as well. I understand that people love the things they use, the technology in which they’ve invested a lot of time and energy learning and they respond to criticism of their favorite things. I admit, I cringe when I hear some of my favorite things criticized as well.

What I didn’t expect from the Android series, though, was the celebration tossed by the iOS fans. In my mind, celebrating accessibility failures is never a good idea. I really like my Macbook Air and my iPhone 5S but I want all devices to be equally or more accessible. I take no joy in writing a review of accessibility that, based upon testing I’ve done or published reports from credible sources, is substandard. Because you chose a device that my blog suggests is “better” is a bad reason to celebrate that other devices may not be as good. This isn’t a game, Apple ain’t the Red Sox and Google ain’t the Yankees and there’s no reason to root for one massively profit generating corporation over another.

When I write a critical piece, I do so to inform my readers of results I have learned about some bit of technology. I do not do so to “gloat” that I had made a particular purchasing decision over another. I have no skin in this game, if a new device comes out tomorrow that I think will like, I’ll go get it no matter the vendor. I view technology as tools and nothing more and I don’t root for Craftsman versus Snap-on either.

Conclusions

In general, I think that the access technology business needs much more real data driving the opinion pieces that are so rampant in this community. We all have our favorite things and it’s good that some people write about such, create tutorials and do all of the other things that make using computing devices much simpler for our community but it’s also essential that we try to stick to facts, find the data to support our assertions and view all marketing literature with a very skeptical approach.

While editing this piece, I went through my usual process of adding links to as many of the proper nouns in this article as possible. I usually add a link to the first occurrence of any proper noun I use in an article. I always prefer including a link to a Wikipedia entry instead of a company or personal web site as Wikipedia’s crowdsourced manner of creating content is far more likely to be objective than are web sites written by businesses as marketing tools or by individuals about themselves. In this piece, I found an Wikipedia article I could link to about Ted Henter but not one about Dean Blazie. Some popular screen readers have Wikipedia entries, some do not.

Perhaps it’s a result of poor accessibility in the Wikipedia interface one uses to add or edit an article but, no matter the reason, the history of access technology, the products, the people who created them and the steady improvement of such is hardly reflected on Wikipedia. This is the one forum where we, as consumers, advocates, developers and users can write our own history and it’s something that we should do as soon as possible.

Back In The Game

Introduction

After I left my Freedom Scientific office for the last time in November 2004, I turned my professional path to one in which I worked for an AT company to working in accessibility contracting, mostly for research groups. This time has allowed me to work on projects far outside the range of things that may be profitable in the future, to learn a whole lot about how standards work and to work alongside some of the nicest and smartest people in the AT world.

Last week, we announced that a new and very different accessibility consulting company, 3MouseTechnology (3MT), founded by Mike Calvo, Christopher Toth and I along with nine others had opened for business.

I wrote the 3MT announcement press release and, for this article, decided to pretend I was a real journalist and compose using the third person as if I had been a recipient of the release and not its author. I talked to other 3MT members, got quotes and even quote myself in the article as if I was someone other than me. Gonzo journalism, my typical style, tends to be written in the first person so this is a bit of an experiment for me to see if I can write effectively in this style.

This article will, in third person, tell the story of 3MT, how we came to the decision to create the company, why we created the business and a bit about what we hope to do in the future. I hope you, my loyal readers, enjoy the piece and, as always, please post comments as I’d love to hear what you think.

A New Approach to Accessibility Consulting

“Mike and I wanted to do something different,” says Chris Hofstader, a founding member of 3MT. “We knew a lot of really smart, independent and productive blind software engineers, guys who’ve made some really impressive technology over the years and, given the enormous and growing demand for qualified accessibility specialists, we decided to build a new company around technology experts from within the community of AT users.”

“At 3 Mouse Technology (3MT), three quarters of our owners, our members if you will, are either blind or low vision. We bring the engineering skills, the knowledge of standards, guidelines and best practices and an intimate knowledge of the usability of a system to our clients,” adds Mike Calvo, another 3MT founder.

Nothing About Us Without Us

“Many times over the years,” adds Hofstader, “I’ve been asked, where can we find blind software engineers? and, with 3MT, I have an answer and it’s ‘right here.’”

“We believe that it is essential that people with disabilities be involved in every step of the development process,” says Mike Calvo, “As we can do the design, testing and usability components of a process, we’re available to those who hope to make their technology accessible at every stage of their project.”

3MT Services?

3 Mouse Technology is available to work on every sort of accessibility related project. 3MT does web accessibility design and remediation, 3MT members have made accessible applications and access technology on most operating systems, its members participated in the development of five different screen readers and have used virtually every access technology designed for this population.

“With our experience in AT, web and application development,” says Christopher Toth, “we have a combination of skills that no other accessibility contractor can claim. We are a total solutions provider available to companies of all sizes and needs”“

Companies seeking help with compliance to regulations like Section 508, ADA Restoration Act, 21st Century Video and Communications Act (CVAA), and similar laws in various US states, EU and other nations that signed the UN Convention regarding people with disabilities, will find solutions at 3MT.

The Exploding Need For Accessibility Services

Last year, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had to delay the roll out of the technological requirements in the ADA Restoration Act to state, county and municipal governments for exactly one reason, “there are too few accessibility experts available to handle all of the remediation work required to come into compliance.” Meanwhile, the same US DOJ joined NFB in its lawsuit against H&R Block contending that corporate web sites, like that of the tax preparation giant, are “places of public accommodation” and, therefore, fall under the regulation of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), creating an even larger set of opportunities for contractors in this field.

“We don’t view the other accessibility contract services companies as competitors, “says Calvo. “In fact, most of us have good friends who own, operate and/or work for some of the other companies doing accessibility work. The fact is, this is a really big pie with a lot of slices and there’s tremendous opportunity in this field.”

3 Mouse Technology intends to work in cooperation with other related businesses and organizations and will in the coming weeks be announcing a number of strategic corporate partnerships with other teams with a similar set of goals.

Who Is 3 Mouse technology?

“As far as I can tell,” says Hofstader, “3 Mouse technology is the first team ever to include individuals from all areas of technology and vision impairment. We have Matt Campbell, the single most accomplished developer in this field. We have people who’ve worked on five different screen readers. We have folks who’ve made accessible applications on every major operating system out there. We have done web accessibility, application accessibility and have made access technology on multiple platforms. We are a total solutions provider.”

“If you asked me if we could get people from JAWS, SystemAccess, NVDA and so many other former competitors all on the same team,” adds Calvo, “I’d have never believed it. Here, with 3MT, though, we’ve assembled a team of former rivals to work toward a common set of goals.” , .

A Differently Organized Company

“When Mike and I first started tossing around ideas for a new project,” says Hofstader, “we knew we wanted to do something to help promote the careers of other blind people working in engineering. I knew some of the guys, Toth, Tyler, Matt and a few others and was so impressed with their skills, their history, their energy and commitment to making accessible technologies that I didn’t want them as employees but, rather, I felt that we should all be partners running a business using democratic principles.” 3MT is organized as a worker’s cooperative in which each member owns an equal portion of its equity and has the same voting power on company matters.

“I wanted to ensure that every member of this team had full access to all of its information, including financial and contract details,” continues Hofstader. “I’ve seen too many consulting businesses take on risks without including their employees in the decision making process and later surprise their staff with an unexpected layoff. We wanted all of our members to be able to participate in proposing contracts, following our income and be able to perform their own risk analysis before electing to participate in a an effort. In effect, we wanted the entire team to participate in executive level functions.”

“While a democratic decision making process slows us down a little,” says Christopher Toth, “it also brings us a level of scrutiny to everything we do and, because this is such an accomplished team, it includes a far wider range of inputs than would a typically organized company.”

The 3MT Future

Along with its short term goals of providing expert level contract services, 3MT will, in the future, be doing a number of different and innovative technology projects. While no one at 3MT is willing to talk too openly about its future, raiders can assume that there will be a number of exciting announcements coming from it in the next few months.

Conclusions

I honestly believe that 3MT now boasts the most accomplished team of blind programmers in history. We have such a broad range of skills as well as bringing the user perspective, an essential for testing all functional requirements of the standards out there to the industry. If you would like to buy some services from us, please go to the 3MT site and send us an email. While there, sign up for our mailing lists so you can ensure you get all of our announcements.

Remembering GW Micro

Introduction

Over the past few weeks, those of us who follow such things have heard two major announcements from GW Micro, the first announcing that they had decided to start selling consulting services and the second announcing that they had been acquired by AI Squared, the Vermont based publishers of the market dominant low vision AT ZoomText.

Over the years, in this blog and on BlindConfidential, I had often mused about GW Micro and its Window-Eyes screen reader. After learning of their merger with AI, I found myself reminiscing about Window-Eyes, especially during the years when I worked at Henter-Joyce and Freedom Scientific.

Before I start, though, I want all readers to understand that this article is a personal essay written entirely from my own memory of events and based entirely in my own opinion of the history I relate herein. This article will not cite references as I’m not using any. I will try to tell the story as best as I can remember but readers should keep in mind that human memory is highly fallible so be assured that some facts and dates and such in this article are probably incorrect. Also, readers should remember that I’m an engineering manager by profession and a writer by avocation and not, therefore, a credible business analyst. The opinions regarding how companies behave and how businesses ebb and flow are given from my personal perspective. I have worked professionally in the software business since 1979 and my opinions are based in having worked in the industry for most of my life and are not definitive by any known definition of the word.

Thus, if I get some facts wildly wrong, I’m happy to (as always on this blog) correct them. Minor factual issues, though, will be ignored if they do not reflect on the story I’m telling.

Window-Eyes: My First “Real” Screen Reader

In 1997, I found myself in a tremendously unfamiliar situation, I had no job and my vision had, due to retinitis pigmentosa, deteriorated to a point in which I could no longer see well enough to use a computer. As I had been programming computers professionally since 1979 and as a hobbyist since 1971, I fell into an incredible state of despair. “Computing is all I know,” I thought, “My career is over.” Then, as I had done so many times before, I decided to solve my problem by making a program that would read aloud the contents of the screen. I had a Macintosh back then and using Apple’s development tools and a combination of C++ and AppleScript, I wrote myself a little utility that would take the selection from the screen, copy it to the clipboard and then push the contents of the clipboard to the old AppleTalk speech synthesizer. Thus, my first screen reader was a home-brewed hack I made for myself.

With my old Macintosh desktop loaded with my personal screen reader, I could navigate menus using CloseView, a really terrible screen magnifier that Apple once included with Macintosh products, at 16X magnification in reverse video. With that, I enrolled in a creative writing program at Harvard and never expected to work in software again. A few months later, though, my father told me had had a conversation with an old friend who, coincidentally, was also blind from RP who had told him of a program called Window-Eyes. Being a terrific dad, mine bought me a Gateway laptop and a copy of Window-Eyes.

When the packages arrived at our home, I had already done some research into Window-Eyes and was really looking forward to giving it a try. After my wife spent a few hours on the phone with GW Micro technical support getting it installed, I sat down and gave it a whirl. “Holy shit!” I exclaimed. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, er… heard!” I would use Window-Eyes for the rest of that year enjoying learning about writing from some really outstanding instructors.

The following summer, though, I started thinking more vocationally and wanted to get back into the work force. Clearly, with a screen reader, I could probably work making software again. I sent my resume to GW Micro and never heard a response. I sent my resume to a friend at Microsoft and he suggested I apply for a job at a Florida based company called henter-Joyce. I went to the HJ web site and saw that, indeed, they had an opening for an engineering manager, I sent them my resume, had a few phone calls with Ted, Glen and some others and the rest is history.

Switching To JAWS

During the year in which I used Window-Eyes, I really didn’t become anything one would describe as a “power user.” Instead, I did pretty well in Word, Internet Explorer 3.x and the long forgotten email client, Eudora. I studied creative writing so all I really needed was a word processor, a browser and a mail program. While I interviewed with HJ, though, Ted Henter felt it essential that I at least try JAWS and he sent me an evaluation copy while they decided whether or not to hire me. After getting JAWS installed on the same Gateway laptop, I started using it for more or less the same tasks. The one major difference I noticed was that, at that point in history, the Window-Eyes “MSAA Mode” for reading web content did a much nicer job than did the JAWS 3.20 “page reformatting” techniques. Otherwise, once I learned the JAWS keymaps, the switch was simple and, as HJ offered me the job leading the JAWS development team, I was sold on it.

The Collegial Competitors

Prior to joining HJ in 1998, my career in software had been entirely mainstream. I was, therefore, accustomed to the sort of competition one observed in the mainstream software industry back in those days. In access technology, though, I was introduced to a whole new way of viewing things. When, after we released JAWS 3.31, the first with the virtual buffer approach to the Internet in September 1999, I mentioned on a public mailing list discussing screen readers that “JAWS can load Jamal Mazrui’s www.empowermentzone.com site in under 30 seconds while it takes Window-Eyes more than 25 minutes to do the same,” the reaction I got puzzled me. Another HJ executive pulled me aside and told me, “the GW guys are upset about your email.”

“Sure,” I said. “our performance kicks their ass, I’d expect them to be upset.”

“It’s not that,” continued my colleague. “They’re upset that you criticized them so publicly.”

“How else would I criticize them, they’re the competition after all,” I added.

I couldn’t believe that the AT biz took such a “candy assed” approach to competition. In my mind, if we said something that was absolutely true, something anyone who owned the two screen readers could test side by side, that we should announce where we did better as loudly as possible. I also felt that, when we heard that Window-Eyes bested JAWS in some areas, that we would do our damnedest to ensure that our users would soon have something equal to or better in an upcoming JAWS release.

I thought this was how competition worked in the software industry: if a competitor beats you at something it’s incumbent upon you to catch up and try to beat them; if you do something better than a competitor, then you should expect them to retaliate with something cool in their next release as well. What I would learn about the AT biz, though, is that it follows a very different set of rules.

The Race To Windows NT

In the years prior to my joining HJ, they acquired a screen magnification program called MAGic from its Massachusetts based developer. This deal happened before I joined the team so I wasn’t present and have no details about the acquisition. MAGic would never become a market success, losing in every marketshare report I’ve ever seen regarding screen magnifiers to the AI^2 ZoomText which still maintains a monopoly like share of the market. What MAGic did, though, was give JAWS the video hooking technology necessary to get into the Windows NT market. Ted and the gang at HJ realized that the US federal government, primarily for security purposes, were upgrading all of its computers from DOS to Windows NT 4 and JAWS and MAGic became the only screen reader and magnifier combination that the feds could buy.

Having a Windows NT solution allowed HJ to sign a long term contract with the US Social Security Administration (SSA) which would be followed by large and long term contracts with the Department of Education and a number of other US federal government agencies. These big time deals followed by the implementation of Section 508 in the federal space gave HJ and later Freedom Scientific a massive infusion of cash dollars, something that neither AI^2 or GW could then boast.

When I joined HJ, the estimated marketshare figures for JAWS and Window-Eyes would have them tied with around 40% each with Dolphin and all others holding onto the remaining 20%. On screen magnifiers, MAGic was third behind both ZoomText and the Dolphin products.

Investment In JAWS

When HJ got the first contract with SSA, as I show above, JAWS and Window-Eyes were effectively tied in the marketshare competition. Ted henter could have chosen to take a whole lot of those dollars home as a windfall but, instead, chose to invest most of your tax dollars back into the business. Along with other executives, Jerry Bowman, Eric Damery and Glen Gordon, Ted worked to bring in professionals like Sharon Spenser and me to help build a management team who could successfully bring the business to the next level. From my first months on the job, I worked well on the team with Glen and Eric and, together, we set out to win the screen reader wars. We were done with “speak no evil” marketing, we dropped the gloves and got down to the business of building a market giant.

What none of us expected, though, was just how easy GW Micro would make our quest for the dominant position.

The GW Micro MSAA Fetish

As I wrote in my recent article on the importance of standards, MSAA was the first accessibility API available on a major operating system. Unfortunately, as I also describe in that article, the early versions of MSAA were not up to the task of providing a truly accessible experience in all but the most simple of applications. For that reason, we at HJ/FS chose to use different techniques to gather information which we would then provide to our users in speech and braille. Although, with JAWS 3.31, we demonstrated how the GW MSAA solution had profound performance problems and would, along with IBM’s Home Page Reader, over the following few years also demonstrate how we could, using other techniques, approach 100% of the web user agent guidelines, GW Micro steadfastly adhered to their MSAA only strategy, a strategy that would help spell their market demise. Year after year, review after review, blind users, government purchasing agents and everyone else who paid any attention would read how JAWS had gotten “even better” on the Internet while Window-Eyes stood more or less in place.

To a guy like me with a mainstream software background, this was incredibly confusing. Both FS and IBM demonstrated solid progress year in and year out and GW Micro, ostensibly the competition to JAWS did virtually nothing to catch up.

One might think that the income HJ/FS derived from its big time government contracts might have fueled the rapid improvements in JAWS but, while this is true for other areas, virtually all of the code written to support the Internet in JAWS 3.31 until at least JAWS 5 was all done by one guy, Glen Gordon, who was in the employ of HJ before the big contracts started coming in. If one programmer, granted one very smart programmer, at HJ/FS could do all of the work, certainly GW Micro could have afforded to do the same. Of course, that’s how a “normal” company in a “normal” industry would behave and, as I said at the top, the AT industry plays by a weird set of rules.

The Great GW Micro Contribution

Shortly after Congress passed Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Bush administration published its rules for implementing such, a whole lot of mainstream software companies realized that, in order to keep their big time government sales, they had to at least pretend to pay attention to accessibility. AT FS, we would get inquiries from multi-billion dollar companies like Adobe, MacroMedia, PeopleSoft, Oracle and others. These mainstream giants needed an accessibility solution. To work with these businesses I proposed and FS launched its software consulting team, today, roughly 15 years later, led by accessibility rockstar Matt Ater. We viewed the accessibility of mainstream software as the problem of its publishers and, while such work was important, we were certainly not going to work for software monsters like these without compensation. Typically, in one of these situations, the big time software company would approach us, we’d say that we’d be happy to work with them for our hourly rate ($125 per hour in those days) and, soon, we’d get a “thanks but no thanks” note from the prospective client and would learn that GW Micro was willing to take on the work at no charge.

All of that was a long time ago so I do not recall the order of the inquiries but, after the first one approached FS but chose to go with GW instead, we heard back from the mainstream company with a, “the federal government doesn’t want it if it doesn’t work with JAWS,” which, of course, we knew already and had already told the potential client in our original proposal. At this point, though, the mainstream vendor had an MSAA solution delivered to them at no cost by GW Micro so would only need to pay FS to do the JAWS side of the effort, saving the billion dollar corporation tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. At FS, we would privately say “thank you” to GW for doing the work as, typically within a month of their doing the heavy lifting, JAWS would use the MSAA implementation they had done pro bono.

While this work was disastrous for the GW Micro business and, until today, I cannot understand why they would repeatedly make this same mistake, it served the community of access technology users very well. A whole lot of mainstream software became more accessible because GW Micro worked as volunteers on their MSAA solutions. This, in turn, helped set a precedent that, indeed, using documented accessibility API was a good strategy and, today, with excellent API on virtually all OS, the model GW professed is the industry standard.

We should all be grateful to GW Micro for doing this work as it established a solid foothold for a standards based approach to accessibility if, indeed, it hurt their business badly. It may have made sense if an independent advocacy group like NFB or ACB helped fund this kind of development work but for a small company like GW Micro, it seemed suicidal.

Microsoft Office

The team at Microsoft that wrote Office back then ignored MSAA almost entirely. JAWS users needed to use Office in their jobs and would need access to its more advanced features in order to get a promotion or do well in a university. At FS, we used a different standard to gain access to the information in these programs. Our decision was to use Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), a programming tool used by corporations and others who want to use Office features in their proprietary applications. By simply adding the ability to query applications via the VBA interface, the JAWS scripting language would have a well documented manner of providing our users with access to information otherwise impossible to a screen reader. This is one area where the greater HJ/FS income does come into play, once we added the VBA feature to the scripting language, we could hire a staff of full time JAWS scripters and let them invent the future.

GW Micro held to the position that a scripting language was too hard for the average user to learn, a straw man argument as few JAWS users would ever attempt to write a script as few ever have the need to do so. As we’d add dozens of new features to the JAWS Office support with each release, including advanced features in PowerPoint, MS Project and even charts and graphs in Excel, Window-Eyes seemed like it was simply waiting for the day that MS would improve MSAA enough to do all of the cool things we could with JAWS. Ultimately, GW Micro would add a VBA enabled scripting facility to Window-Eyes but it would come years after JAWS and NVDA had crushed them in the marketshare battles.

Why GW Micro refused to add the functionality that JAWS had for years in Office still confuses me today. Did they really think they were competing by simply doing what appeared to me to be as little as possible?

The No Cost Window-Eyes

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that any user of a licensed version of MS Office 2010 or newer could download a copy of Window-Eyes at no charge. This announcement made quite a splash but I chose not to write about it as our friends at Serotek had written a good piece on the matter and I had nothing to add. Like many others who hadn’t given Window-Eyes a look in a long time, I downloaded a copy and gave it a try. Right off, I noticed that it didn’t work with my favorite applications as well as does NVDA and, rather than spending a lot more time digging into it, I left it installed on my Windows tablet but haven’t launched it in months.

My impressions, though, from talking to a bunch of other blind people who’ve also tried the no cost Window-Eyes is a solid sense of “who cares.” Most of my screen reader using friends gave it a whirl and, for the most part, returned to NVDA with a few still using JAWS.

Any regular reader of this blog would know that I’m something of a standards freak. A decade ago, Window-Eyes refused to compete in the standards battle. Today, compared to NVDA, a free screen reader written mostly by two very underpaid guys in Australia, (I cannot comment on the current state of JAWS as I don’t have a copy installed anywhere), Window-Eyes remains far behind. As far as I can tell, Window-Eyes ignores most of the Aria specification so would be useless even in a properly standard accessible web app. So, if you care about web accessibility through standards, best practices and objective measures, support NVDA as they’re doing it right and they need all of the help they can get.

Conclusions

To be honest, I can’t conclude anything about GW Micro other than they were the most puzzling competitor I’ve ever come up against. Their willingness to give away their consulting time for free and refusal to even try to match JAWS functionality in MS Office or on the Internet still feels like corporate suicide to me. That GW Micro lasted as long as it did as an independent endeavor also confuses me, who are their customers? Obviously, given the most recent WebAIM statistics that show Window-Eyes with a share below virtually all other screen readers, the answer is “very few people.”

I predict that when MS releases Windows 9, it will contain a new Narrator that will be competitive with Apple’s VoiceOver on OSX. At that point, the no cost Window-Eyes will be obviated and it will become a forgotten product overnight. People who need more performance and more features than the Narrator I imagine will continue to use either NVDA or, especially those who use applications that require a lot of customization, JAWS. My predictions are based on nothing more than an idea I’ve pulled out of my butt so, if it comes true, remember, you heard it hear first.

Standards Are Important

Introduction

For nearly twenty years, the community of people working on disability related issues involving technology have worked very hard to create a set of standards, guidelines and best practices for accessibility. This article intends to explore the history of why the rich set of standards we now have available to developers had to be created and why it is essential that standards based, objective measures are the only way to reliably measure the accessibility of a device, an app, web site or an operating system.

It’s Not Just About Blind Users

This article was motivated by a tweet I received from one of my Twitter friends. I had stated that universal accessibility means including people with all disabilities, not just we blinks. His response, “why do i when i look at a phone or computer should i care about other disabilities? like motor impairment…” startled me. He, a blind person, was stating boldly that if technology works for him with a screen reader, that it didn’t matter if it also works with access technology designed for people with disabilities unrelated to vision. Following his logic, all mainstream web developers should probably just ignore the accessibility standards altogether as, if we blind people don’t care about people with other disabilities, why should any web developer care about people with any disability, blind or otherwise?

As far as I can tell, all technological accessibility standards of which I am aware are designed to provide access to people with as many different disabilities as possible. Hence, a standards based approach to accessibility solves not just problems encountered by people with vision impairment but allows for access technology designed for every imaginable disability to function successfully.

Some History

Fifteen or so years ago, when the Internet was truly the wild west, accessibility was handled on a site by site, AT by AT basis. Web sites that used mostly text and stuck to standard controls were, more or less, accessible; those that were more visually appealing were rarely so. The world is dominated by sighted people who like looking at pretty things and highly visually oriented web design became the norm so accessibility of web content had to be invented.

Screen readers like JAWS and a nifty Internet accessibility tool from IBM called Home Page Reader (HPR) started tackling the problem of delivering the Internet to people with vision impairment. GW Micro used the strategy of gathering its web information using the Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) API, which, as we’ll see, wasn’t yet up to the task of supplying a screen reader with everything it needed to provide to its users. JAWS, Window-Eyes and the popular low vision tool, ZoomText all also used different heuristics for gathering information from a web browser that were as non-standard and as proprietary as proprietary can be. In the blindness/low vision space alone, chaos dominated the accessibility field.

The Invention of the Virtual Buffer

While GW Micro chose to stick with the MSAA approach to web accessibility, the teams at Freedom Scientific and IBM took JAWS and HPR in a radically different direction. With the release of JAWS 3.31, the world of blind computer users were introduced to the virtual buffer, now the standard way of delivering web content in all Windows based screen readers.

[Just a definition: the term “virtual buffer” was coined by Eric Damery, Glen Gordon and me in a meeting at FS in the months immediately prior to the 3.31 release. Our definition of the term was, “a buffer with no on screen components that a user could read using arrow keys like in a word processor, activate links and do a few other things necessary then for JAWS to provide superior access to the Internet.” In the years since, though, only when speaking to friends who work on or use the Orca screen reader on the Gnome desktop, I’ve heard a modified definition of “virtual buffer” that adds a component of preprocessing done by a screen reader to the data before it is placed into the buffer to be read by the user. As it is very true that both JAWS and HPR did, indeed, include augmentations to the text as well as including workarounds to force some information to be readable when it was far from accessible in a standard manner, the term “virtual buffer” with both definitions apply.]

The teams working on JAWS at FS and on HPR at IBM came to an identical conclusion simultaneously. If we want to provide a rich web browsing experience to blind computer users, if we hope to follow the web User Agent Guidelines (UAG), we cannot use MSAA to gather the data as MSAA didn’t support most of the elements needed to comply with the UAG. At FS, we solved the problem by using the VBA interface to Internet Explorer and ask it to give us all of the HTML it was using to display the page on screen. JAWS then, as if it was a mini-browser built into a screen reader, would parse the HTML itself, add words like “link” and the like and place the user into a “virtual buffer” that could be navigated like a word processing document. IBM would follow about six months later with a very similar solution in HPR.

Virtual Buffer Workarounds

Both FS and IBM took the approaches we chose in order to provide the best possible experience to blind users who wanted to use the Internet. Neither team should ever apologize for what we did as, if we had waited for standards to emerge, our users would have had no more than a tiny fraction of what we could provide through what, in retrospect, were truly ugly, kludgerous hacks. In our quest to make an excellent experience for ourselves (both the JAWS and HPR teams were filled with actual users, something GW Micro couldn’t boast), our users, our customers and to set a bar for what “excellent” meant for accessibility to blind users of the Internet meant, we broke every rule in the book and, to this day, I’m proud of that work.

Unfortunately, there was, as is often the case, unintended negative consequences of our having taken the law into our own hands. Specifically, a lie started to spread around the community of people interested in web accessibility and I was one of the people who promoted the great falsehood, “A site is accessible if it works with JAWS.”

JAWS was, without a doubt, the gold standard for accessibility for people with profound to total vision impairment and, indeed, regarding standards, JAWS and HPR could boast a score of greater than 90% when tested against the user agent guidelines while Window-Eyes and the Dolphin products scored forty precent and below so we were “standards compliant” in that regard. We were not, however, compliant with the web content guidelines and all of the razzmatazz that we did behind the scenes to make non-compliant content appear to our users in an accessible manner made JAWS a terrible testing tool for all but one case: testing if something was compatible with JAWS. In those days, a web site could claim it was “accessible” if they tested it with JAWS and it worked but users of Window-Eyes, ZoomText, the Dolphin products and access technology designed for disabilities other than blindness were screwed.

The Testing Against JAWS Hangover

A decade ago, when JAWS was the king and truly set the standard for accessibility on the web for blind users, the statement that something was “accessible if it worked with JAWS,” while untrue, did hold some credibility. By 2004, JAWS was holding a monopoly marketshare and, as the other screen readers were far behind in standards compliance, was also the one blindness related product that one could use to exercise the standards fully. I don’t know if it’s still there but FS then published an HTML document we wrote with a title like “The HTML Challenge” that one could load into their favorite browser with their favorite screen reader to see just how much of the standard was exposed to them. Of course, users who tried the challenge with JAWS or Home Page Reader got terrific results; those who tried it with Window-Eyes, HAL and other screen readers were sadly disappointed with the product they chose.

Thus, for good reasons a decade ago, the practice of testing web content against JAWS became a practice used at many web development shops that care about accessibility. Unfortunately, today, it is both unnecessary to test with JAWS but, even worse, JAWS is no longer the screen reader most compliant with web standards like WCAG 2.0 and WAI/Aria. Today, the top screen reader regarding standards compliance is NVDA, a FLOSS screen reader for Windows.

This does not, however, mean that testing against NVDA is a guarantee of standards compliance either. Remember, testing against a screen reader will only provide you with results apropos to screen reader users and will ignore important aspects of the standards that are meaningless to people with vision impairment.

One really important item in WCAG is the regulations on the rate with which something can “flicker” on the screen. Obviously, NVDA, JAWS or any other screen reader wouldn’t monitor if something is flashing on and off, blind users wouldn’t care but some people with epilepsy can have a seizure triggered by an object on the screen flickering at a specific number of hertz. In some cases, such seizures can cause permanent brain damage so this is a really important part of the accessibility standards that one would miss if they only test against a screen reader.

If Not With JAWS, How Can We Test?

There are a number of good automated accessibility testing tools out there and I’m (as part of a new project I’m doing on another blog) working to build a web page filled with pointers to such resources. As I’ve just started creating a catalogue of such tools and haven’t had the time to see which are current, which are free, no cost or come with a hefty price tag and which are accessible (I’m not going to promote an accessibility tool that a PWD cannot also use), I haven’t such a list to post publicly yet. I am told that the Internet Explorer accessibility plug-in from The Paciello Group is very good but I can’t vouch for it myself. I’m sure if you google “web accessibility test remediation tool” you will find some other good ones as well.

Now, Standards Exist

As I wrote above, fifteen years ago, AT developers had to hack their way through web accessibility; today, that is no longer true. Today, we have standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG), WAI/Aria for web apps and, most recently, the BBC Mobile Checklist for device accessibility. There is no reason that any technology in 2014 is not fully compliant already as none of these standards contain any difficult engineering. Some of the aspects of making a web app accessible can be tricky but if you’re an accomplished enough a developer to be making a complex web app, I’m highly confident that you can figure out the WAI/Aria part as well.

A Call For Universal Accessibility

Atop this article, I mention the problem that can arise when blind people decide that we’re “special” and agree to leave behind people with other disabilities as if they didn’t matter. If we make the argument, “it works for me” and walk away from other groups who benefit from standards based accessibility, we are cutting our own throats. The reason that the web is more accessible today than ever before is because an increasingly large number of web sites are choosing to be compatible with standards and guidelines for accessibility. If we, as consumers of access technology eschew standards in favor of our own selfish desires, we are endorsing bad accessibility for ourselves as well.

Conclusions

If you want to make sure that your web site is accessible, please do so in a manner that is based in the standards and don’t just test with a screen reader. Testing with a screen reader is a good way to ensure that you’ve gotten most things right but, unless you’ve tested against the standard itself, you may accidentally trigger a seizure somewhere by accident.

If you are a consumer of access technology, whether blind or otherwise, insist that your AT be as standards compliant as possible so you can enjoy the excellent accessibility available in programs like Microsoft Office Online.

If you are a person with a disability, please try to stand together with those of us who endorse universal design as the only appropriate route to universal accessibility. The route to universal design on the Internet is through standards compliance, whether accessibility related or not. If we, as blind people, ignore the needs of those with other disabilities, we are simply begging the mainstream to ignore our needs as well.

Back In The USA

Introduction

As I wrote in my previous piece, I spent the weekend of 4/12-13 at the QED conference in Manchester, England. This event is run by the terrific people at the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS) who did an incredible job of lining up speakers, arranging panels and delivering all of it in an entirely accessible manner. If you are interested in science, humanism, skepticism, and related subjects, do attend QED in the future, you will not be disappointed.

Gratitude

I’d like to start by thanking the amazing team at MSS for doing such an incredible job organizing and delivering my favorite conference every year. These guys, Mike Hall, Michael Marshall, Andy Wilson and the rest of the gang did an amazing job of making this a tremendously welcoming event for all, including we people with disabilities. They are a terrific bunch of people whom, if you get the opportunity, you should meet and befriend as they are simply awesome.

I’d also like to specifically thank a few friends for hanging out and making my time there so special. These include Hayley and Charlie Stevens, James and Liz from Pod Delusion, Adam and his terrific mom Jeanie and many more. Part of what makes QED so special is having the opportunity to socialize with so many other really smart and interesting people. If you attend a QED in the future, you will find that you already have friends there, you just haven’t met them yet.

The QED Speakers

I enjoyed virtually every presentation and panel I attended at QED. Most special, however, was the keynote speaker, Nate Phelps, formerly of the hateful Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps described, in harrowing detail, his life growing up as son of the violent Fred Phelps. What made Nate’s talk so compelling is that it was delivered entirely without anger, bitterness or the “hate” one might assume that one who escaped from the hell of his early life would maintain. Phelps spoke with kindness and I don’t think a single person of the 550 or so in the room didn’t feel tremendously moved by his talk.

Being Reasonable

A large part of QED is the notion of “being reasonable.” In fact, Michael Marshall, a QED organizer and my dear friend Hayley Stevens do a terrific podcast called “Be Reasonable” in which they interview people with beliefs radically different from heir own. I asked Hayley, “How do you remain so patient? How don’t you lose your shit talking to these people?” Hayley said, “We, Marsh and me, we just want to learn so we’ve learned to be good at listening.”

At one point in the conference, I had the opportunity to enjoy a hallway chat with James O’Malley, editor of the awesome Pod Delusion podcast to which I make an occasional contribution. James asked me the simple question, “How can we enforce accessibility regulations, standards and such on web sites that get fewer than 20 hits per month?” James’ query interested me, I’m terrific at telling people that the accessibility of their technology (web site, app, whatever) is shit but, when I do, I have, in the past, only had solutions for remediation in hand for the wealthiest of organizations out there, big companies, government agencies, universities and the kinds of institutions who can afford to pay high priced consulting dollars for experts while offering nothing for all of the important skeptical sites out there run by individuals and groups altogether too small to pay anyone, let alone a contractor to do accessibility remediation.

During one panel, I asked a question that was really more of a statement on accessibility, the right to read, literacy rights, discrimination and other fundamental issues regarding disability. I became very aggressive, I was a dick. The reality of the situation is that everyone on the stage wanted to be accessible, they didn’t know how. Thus, I’m launching into a new project associated with Skeptability, a disability centric sister site to Skepchick, that will gather accessibility resources in a manner that they an be used by non-engineers to do their own remediation. Overwhelmingly, new web sites in this community are based in WordPress and those that aren’t tend to use either Drupal or Joomla, systems on which an author can make their work very accessible with very little time or effort involved. I’m going to try to make it all as simple as possible and will try to write the prose using as little jargon as I can. I hope having such a resource will help make the world of skepticism more welcoming to all.

If I’m not part of the solution, I’m part of the problem. Around this community, I’ve been a good critic but a terrible fixer.

Be Unreasonable?

Of the more than a dozen presentations and panels I attended in Manchester, including the terrific Skepticamp organized by the Pod Delusion gang on Friday, there was only one that I didn’t enjoy too much. this was the “Guerrilla Skeptics” talk given by Las Vegas magician and mentalist Mark Edward.

First, Edward, a performer of tremendous talent told us that he wouldn’t do a demonstration of cole reading or mentalism as the audience would already know about that stuff. The audience has all previously seen Richard Wiseman turn a tea towel into a rubber chicken but the audience always enjoys seeing the trick again, even if Wiseman had long previously bored with doing the gag. Perhaps, if Edward and warmed up the audience with a bit of humor and “magic,” he would have seemed less angry and would have been a more effective presenter.

During his talk, Edward showed a slide containing a picture of a banner stating, “Sylvia Brown is a Convicted Felon.” This is true, the late pseudo-psychic, Sylvia Brown was convicted of a felony in her past. When I heard him mention this, I muttered to the person sitting beside me, “Convicted felon? You mean people like Nelson Mandela, Mohandus Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Brian Dunning?” and he snickered.

Ad hominem, last I checked, was a logical fallacy. That Brown had been convicted of a felony is orthogonal to whether or not she had actual psychic abilities.

If we explore the case of skeptical celebrity, Brian Dunning, we may have a different perspective on using such logical fallacies in our arguments. Dunning pled guilty to fraud charges and admitted that he had stolen more than a million US dollars using illegal and fraudulent techniques. Dunning has, thus far, refused to apologize for the crimes for which he was convicted, instead, saying, “It wasn’t really very much money.” Having had a drug addict friend of mine spend six months in a Florida County Jail for stealing $200 worth of crap from a discount store while seeing Dunning steal more than 5000 times as much and get no time certainly annoys me but that’s a function of the general inequities of the American legal system – steal a little, go to jail; steal a lot, get a fine and continue with your safe suburban life.

Do Dunning’s criminal behavior cast doubt on the value of his Skeptoid podcast? I would say “no,” hacking crimes of which he was convicted say nothing about the quality of the research, presentation or anything else about Skeptoid, one of my most favorite podcasts. Dunning’s work product is outstanding and it’s one of the very few podcasts that never backs up in my pod catcher, when I see a Skeptoid episode has dropped, I listen almost immediately. Dunning’s work in the skeptical movement is undoubtedly excellent but, indeed, he is not just a convicted felon, he’s a convicted fraud. Thus, the ad hominem statement that Sylvia Brown had been a felon says as much about her as the same statement does about Dunning. If you’re going to use logical fallacies to combat those with whom we disagree, you need, to avoid hypocrisy, to use the same fallacious statements about our friends.

When Edward said that Phil Plate’s notion of, “don’t be a dick,” was a bad idea for behavior towards all but “friends and family,” I started hearing “under the breath” mutterings from others sitting near me. In short, it came down to, “this is what is wrong with skepticism in America.” I felt a bit of shame for my fellow US skeptics and, more so, started questioning my own tactics regarding accessibility and the skeptical movement.

I’m happy that I sat through Edward’s talk as, in many ways, it’s helped me formalize my approach to “be reasonable” while trying to affect change regarding accessibility. Edward caused me to ask, “am I that guy?” and, when the answer was, “well, shit Chris, you are…” I decided to make some changes in how I approach people regarding the issue I personally find most important.

The 20 Is Plenty Campaign

One of the most interesting conversations I had at QED was over breakfast with a lovely woman named Anna Semlyen. Anna is the leader of the “20 Is Plenty” campaign to have speed limits in residential areas reduced to twenty miles per hour. Her core issue is the rights of individuals to walk and ride bicycles more safely. Her Skepticamp presentation was loaded with highly compelling data for why this is a really good idea and, of course, pedestrian issues are also at teh core of the movement for independence for people with disabilities. It was absolutely terrific to have the opportunity to discuss the intersection of her issues with those on which I work and I look forward to helping try to promote this issue in the US in the future.

Conclusions

As I say at the top of this piece, if you haven’t attended QED before, come next year; if you’ve come in the past, please return as I’d enjoy meeting you again. To all of the organizers, speakers and attendees, here’s a big Gonz thank you for making the even so incredible.

QED! QED! QED!

Introduction

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) would already know that I’m a vocal skeptic, humanist, atheist and science enthusiast. When I have the opportunity, I enjoy meeting up with other like minded people at conferences, “pub” events, local dinners and other similar gatherings. In our winter residence in Florida, I enjoy the South Pinellas Skeptics meet-ups and, in our Cambridge, Massachusetts home during the summer, I try to attend Mary Brock’s Boston Skeptics Book Club meetings in Harvard Square.

Conferences, however, require planning, travel and a reasonably large expense. I’d love to attend a bunch of conferences around the world, alas, I need to be picky as I can only afford to attend a few events per year and these include technology events unrelated to skepticism in any way.

Last year, I attended two skeptical/humanist/science sorts of events, QED in Manchester, England and Women in Secularism (WiS) in Washington, DC. So far this year, I’ve only attended the One Web For All hackathon in San Francisco but, next month, I’ll be flying back to the UK to attend QED for the second year in a row.

What Makes QED So Special?

Before attending QED 2013, I wrote a somewhat tongue in cheek blog post called “Gonz and the X-Dog at QED” which provided a remedial tutorial in how people can and should engage with a blind person and his dog while at a conference. When I wrote that piece, almost exactly one year ago, I thought it would provide an amusing look at social relationships and a person with vision impairment. What would happen to my blind friend and I at WiS would, however, teach me that the wonderful time I had at QED 2013 may not have been a reality I could expect elsewhere.

QED and Accessibility

When, in autumn 2012, I purchased my tickets for QED, I followed up with an email to the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS) telling them of potential accessibility problems at a conference and received a very friendly email from Mike Hall, one of the guys on the terrific “Skeptics With A K” podcast and the guy responsible for the technological portions of the conference (web site, hand outs, etc.). In his note, Mike said that, closer to the conference date, he’d send me the files and, if there were any problems, that he would remediate them before the actual event date. About eight weeks before QED 2013, I got a nice email from Mike congaing the PDF files containing the conference handouts and, as in advance, he had already looked up how to properly tag a PDF for accessibility, they were all fully accessible before I even saw them. This is exactly how accessibility should be handled, if there’s a standard to follow it just do as Mike did and follow the guidelines and you won’t need anyone to help with remediation as there won’t be anything to remedy.

Social Models at QED

Most people who attended QED 2013 had not read my blog article describing how to act around a blind person and his dog. Nonetheless, while in Manchester last year, not a single QED conference attendee touched either me or my dog without first announcing their presence. Perhaps, the public school systems in UK do a better job of educating their society about human relationships with people with disabilities or, perhaps, the QED attending population is far more “with it” than those who might attend a CFI event in DC. I honestly don’t know why QED attendees are so nice to be around but, all I can say, is that I deeply appreciate the culture of the event.

Other Blind People at QED?

Last year, as QED wound down, I promised that I’d do whatever I could to at least double the number of blind people in attendance. Mike Hall and the MSS gang did such a gray job with accessibility in 2013 and, this year, did an even better job with the QED web site than before. When I bought my QED tickets this year, I found a single and very minor accessibility bug on the site, I reported it to Mike and it was fixed less than a half hour later. Mike’s commitment to accessibility is stronger than some people who work on the technical side of some accessibility/disability oriented conferences and is, by far, the most accessible mainstream conference I’ve ever been around.

Unfortunately, although nearly a year ago, I promised to pay for a QED ticket for any other blind person who cared to attend, I’ve received zero requests for such. A few friends toyed with the idea but, for a variety of pretty good reasons, they couldn’t attend this year. This makes me sad as Mr. Hall has done a lot of excellent work to make the conference accessible to our population but I’m the only one who seems capable of enjoying his work. If you’re blind and enjoy science, humanism, atheism, skepticism and related topics, please do consider attending QED. I’m told there are very few tickets left but, if you’re blind and want to attend, write to me through the contact form and, if you’re serious, I’ll get you a ticket if any remain. I’d just love to be able to thank Mike for his terrific efforts by showing that more blind people than just me will attend.

How Is QED Special Otherwise?

Unlike some skeptical events, TAM for instance, QED has no green room for the speakers and other celebrities to hide. In 2013, I enjoyed chatting with Lawrence Krauss as if he was just another attendee. During an overflow panel a lot of people had to sit on the floor. Richard Dawkins himself was on the floor beside the X-Dog, showing a side of the controversial and often difficult man that one would rarely otherwise have the opportunity to witness. I was able to meet and hang out with as many of the speakers I had hoped to and enjoyed establishing a friendship with people like Carrie Poppy, Michael Marshal and the Pod Delusion people.

The QED 2014 speaker list contains a broad section of different sub-topics from the entire spectrum of scientific skepticism. I’m really looking forward to hearing a lot of the talks and panels announced so far.

More than the presentations, though, I look forward to hanging out with friends I had made at QED last year and before then as well. I can’t wait to see skeptical notables like Hayley Stevens and Rhys Morgan but also all of the nice people whose names few of you would recognize. At QED 2013, I felt that I had “found my tribe” and I look forward to meeting more friends whom I haven’t met yet.

Getting Involved In Skepticism

Since attending QED 2013, I’ve continued making the occasional contribution to Pod Delusion and have done a handful of guest posts for Skepchick as well. Most interestingly, though, I’m a founding contributor to a new site called Skeptability, a Skepchick sister site about disability. Skeptability isn’t online yet so please follow this blog to learn when we’ve launched.

Conclusions

Whether you are blind or have another disability or not, I recommend you attend QED next month. Check out the QED site and you’ll undoubtedly find aspects of it you would like to hear. Come to reward MSS for doing a terrific job of accessibility for their event but, mostly, attend this event to meet amazing people with interests similar to mine. If you like this blog, you’ll love QED.

Good Books, Bad Books, You Know I’ve Had My Share

Introduction

Regular readers of this blog, which is to say people who read the articles I write unrelated to disability as well as those about accessibility and such (about 10 of you), would know that I’m also passionate about music, literature, poetry and a lot of other artistic endeavors. At any given time, I’m usually reading two or three books concurrently. Recently, I’ll have one silly book, something by Terry Pratchett for instance, a non-fiction book about some topic I find interesting and a work of “art literature” often from the past.

Over the past week, I read a non-fiction book that I thought was so terrible that I had to reach for one of the greatest books in the canon of American literature just because I needed a strong dose of beauty and genius to rebalance a brain punished by the non-fiction work I had read immediately prior.

The Blues

The blues, a style of music that derived from spirituals sung by African slaves in 18th and 19th century America, is the genre that inspired most other styles of American music. Rock and roll, a lot of jazz, country, rockabilly, R&B and other American inventions have their roots in whole or in part in the blues.

The blues is also the style of music I enjoy playing. By no known definition of the word can I be called a “musician” but I can blow blues harmonica well enough to have a lot of fun jamming with friends. It was when I played acoustic blues with a friend then working on his PhD in aero-astro engineering at MIT (an actual rocket scientist) that I acquired the nickname Blind Christian as we thought that a pair of nerds playing American roots music called “Blind Christian and Chunder” sounded like a couple of old guys from blues history.

As I do with many things I love, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years reading about the history of the blues and listening to the music chronologically so as to learn about its evolution as to see which musicians influenced those who would come later. I enjoy the history of artistic movements and observing that, as one generation stood on the shoulders of the giants who came before them, how they would take the art into a different direction.

Most recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of blues-rock from the sixties and seventies, largely acts from England. I reached the British blues-rock era led by performers like Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, BB King and a few others. I found myself listening to a lot of Cream, Jimi Hendrix (sure, he was born in America and learned his craft here but he had to go to the UK to find the other members of his band and to develop an audience that he couldn’t in the states), The Yardbirds and a few others. This brought me to Led Zeppelin,, an act I ignored during their peek years while I was in high school.

The Bad Book

As I spent my time listening to early recordings by Led Zeppelin, I found that I was tremendously impressed by their skill as musicians. Jimmy Page could play guitar as well as any navy blues-rock player, including Hendrix. John Bonham followed in the tradition of drumming masters like Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Gene Krupa, Ginger Baker, Art Blakey and others who brought the drum kit into the forefront of their music rather than just keeping time and banging away. John Paul Jones played bass ones that often needed to be highly complex so as to allow the guitar and drums to sound musical during wild improvisational moments. Robert Plant had a perfect voice for blues-rock while, in his prime, also looking like a Greek statue of male perfection. I wanted to learn more about this band so I got a biography of the band from Audible.com.

When Giants Walked The Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin was the top search result on Audible when I looked for “led Zeppelin.” The description of the book on the Audible site sounded interesting so I bought it with one of my Audible credits.

Excuses For Crimes

Over the years, I’ve read a number of rock biographies. In general, the authors tend to canonize their subjects and describe even their worst moments in glowing terms. In “When Giants Walked The Earth”, however, these relatively juvenile passages of the wild behavior of the members of Led Zeppelin during their peek years often sound like the author is suggesting that their horrible treatment of women, acts of sadism and possibly rape, were “a sign of the times” and not the reprehensible violence that the really were. A lot of bands lived wild lives during the seventies but this was the only book in which I’ve ever read such bogus excuses for what I think is actually criminal behavior.

Incredibly Pretentious

“Giants” contains a bunch of flashbacks to periods in the lives of the Led Zeppelin members. These, in the fashion of a creative high school level writer, are described in the second person. The phrase, “You’ve wanted to be a singer since your fifth birthday…” I’m the reader and that’s to whom second person is usually addressed but, in this book, either the author thinks his readers are actual former members of Led Zeppelin (a total of five people in its history) or would be entertained by long passages in the second person. I found this aspect of the book to be entirely annoying with all of the immature notions of a teenaged writer. Of course, as this is a rock and roll biography, high schooled aged boys are probably the target audience, hence, maximizing the faux artistic stylings may allow them to think their being all intellectual and shit. This technique falls flat on its face.

The author also seems obsessed with Alastair Crowley, the philosopher of modern satanism. While Jimmy Page was and likely remains a member of OTO and some Led Zeppelin album covers contain symbols derived from OTO imagery, the implication that “Stairway to Heaven,” possibly the most popular song in rock history, could only have been written with “supernatural, satanic magic flowing through Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, the Led Zeppelin members who wrote the song, is so ridiculous that, while reading these passages, I found myself yelling at the narrator on the audio version of the book. If an author wants to assert that something satanic occurred, it is first incumbent upon said author to first prove that satan, Lucifer or whatever supernatural actor is at work exists at all. Art doesn’t come from supernatural inspiration, it comes from hard work, lots of practice and a level of individual creativity based purely in the human condition.

Awful People

“When Giants Walked The Earth” is about five people: Jimmy Page, founder of Led Zeppelin and its guitar player; Robert Plant, lead singer; John Bonham, one of the greatest drummers of all time; John Paul Jones, bass and keyboard player and Peter Grant, the band’s manager. With the exception of Jones, the quiet member of Led Zeppelin who described his wild years as “I participated in the fun parts but when things got too ugly, I would disappear,” the people described in this book are not individuals whom I would ever want to meet in person.

Jimmy Page was a sadistic misogynist. John Bonham was a violent drunk and, based on description of events, a rapist as well. Robert Plant was a self absorbed tyrant. Peter Grant turned into a paranoid and abusive individual who acted horribly toward nearly everyone outside of the band.

Over the years, I’ve learned to separate the art from the artist. Musical giants, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, for instance, were all horrible people. Beethoven abused nearly everyone in his life, Miles beat up wives Eartha Kitt and Cicely Tyson. Charlie Parker, such a bad heroin junky, would steal from even his closest friends. Artists are all humans and some humans do very bad things. Their art, however, stands on its own and, these three at least, created works of such profound beauty that, separate from the awful men who wrote these compositions, they will stand as beautiful forever.

The members of Led Zeppelin did horrible things while also creating some of the most lasting rock and roll music of all time. I can despise them as individuals while admiring their creations.

Major Factual Problems

Perhaps the author doesn’t know about BitTorent and the availability of Led Zeppelin bootlegs online. In one passage of the book, the author describes a concert performed at a venue called “Earl’s Court” in London. The band had to leave the UK to become “tax refugees” so as to avoid the then incredibly high British tax rates, up to 95% on income earned abroad, back then, In this section of the book, the author puts a whole lot of words into Plant’s mouth that, when I listened to the bootleg recording of the concert, I found that he was making a lot of the stuff up entirely. Robert Plant made a few snarky comments about the UK government during the concert but didn’t say about half of the things the author had attributed to him. In fact, no one at all can be quoted as having said about half of the statements he attributed to Plant so he must have just made them up.

Don’t Get This Book

If you want to learn more about Led Zeppelin, find a different source. The over the top level of pretentiousness in this book makes it nearly unreadable at times. The author tells a story that doesn’t seem compatible with other sources and does so in a manner that seems designed to amuse high school aged boys.

Rebooting My Brain

When I finished “Giants,” I desperately needed to find literature of the highest level of artistic expression. While I enjoy literature from around the world, my greatest literary passions are for 20th century American writers. As I was looking for something I knew in advance would contain prose written with the highest levels of skill, a book with stark poetic beauty, a work with rhythmic properties that can leave one’s jaw dropped and one that touches the heart of the human condition, I decided to read for abut the tenth time, William Faulkner’s Light In August.

For this blog article, I’m going to write a bit about this incredibly important novel and why I decided to read it now. Do not consider this to be an adequate review of “Light In August.” This novel has been dissected, discussed, reviewed, studied, analyzed and written about by thousands of literary experts. I’m an advanced reader and haven’t the skills to even begin to write a proper review of a real literary masterpiece. Please, if you enjoy reading great literature and are not already familiar with the works of William Faulkner, take the time to read his three masterpiece novels: “Light In August,” The Sound and The Fury and Absalom, Absalom. All three of these novels are considered by people who study such things to be among the greatest works in the English language. Faulkner is often compared favorably to literary legends like Chaucer, William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Marcel proust and others. Unfortunately, likely due to Faulkner’s adult themes, sex, violence, racism, hatred and the fundamental condition of southern Americans, his work is rarely taught in high schools and if you, my loyal readers, are like most people, you probably managed to graduate from college having read few masterworks during your four years of vocational education.

The Great American Novel

Throughout the 20th century a notion called “the great American novel” persisted. In short, the idea was that there would some day be a single novel that would, better than any other, describe the American condition in prose similar to that of British writers. When many discuss this idea today, they don’t assume that it’s a single novel but, rather, a collection thereof. In general, though, there is an assumption that “American” literature didn’t really exist until the late 19th century, hence, works like Moby Dick are often categorized as “English language literature” rather than “American literature” as, stylistically, they are far more similar to English literature than American.

Like the earliest work to gain international attention as a great American novel was Mark Twain’sAdventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It described the pain in all Americans, black and white, caused by racism, slavery and hatred. Twain, however, hadn’t the luxury of including topics of sexuality and “white on white” violence in his works as 19th century readers wouldn’t have accepted such and the censors would have banned books about such topics.

In the 20th century, authors like Sherwood Anderson, Earnest Hemingway and others would raise the artistic bar for American literature and expand the subjects covered. William Faulkner would be at the forefront of this movement.

In the decades since Faulkner died, the influences of his works are readily apparent in other masterpiece novels as well. If one reads novels by another American recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison, they will hear echoes of Faulkner throughout. Morrison’s character, Milkman, in her novel “Song of Solomon” may not have been possible without Faulkner having created his Joe Christmas character, the protagonist in “Light In August.”

If you are looking for the great American novel, “Light In August” is a terrific place to start learning about the art of American literature.

Joe Christmas

Of all of the characters in American literature, including Huckleberry Finn himself, Joe Christmas may be the most well studied. This character is so complex, so wonderful and horrible, so deeply American that, decades after the book was written, he remains one of the most important characters ever created in English language fiction. If you read “Light In August” you will recognize him, love him, despise him, pity him, fear him and, quite definitely, learn to think differently about him.

The Story

“Light In August” functions on multiple levels. One can read it as a crime/mystery novel. It can be read as a novel about the American south in the post civil war and pre civil rights era. It is kind of a love story and a story of hatred and violence. The story, therefore, is far more complex than you are likely to find familiar. It is, however, compared to other modernist masterworks, novels like Marcel Proust’s multi-volume “Remembrances of Things Past,” James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” and Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom,” “Light In August” is also very “accessible.”

In “light In August,” Faulkner uses a tremendous number of what were then largely experimental literary techniques but does so in a fashion that doesn’t ever distract from the meaning of his words. If you enjoy audio books, you will undoubtedly notice the tremendously effective use of meter and rhythm in the author’s prose that adds to the overall beauty of the work without ever sounding clunky. In some passages, Faulkner uses iambic pentameter, the rhythmic pattern popular in the Elizabethan era, written using southern and African American dialect in prose. Perhaps Faulkner did this to suggest, “Take that Shakespeare” and show off his own skills, others have suggested he did this to increase the dignity of otherwise very poor and ignorant characters. No matter the motivation, it’s a delight to hear.

Conclusions

If you’re really interested in Led Zeppelin, find a source to satisfy your curiosity other than “When Giants Walked the Earth.” It’s a terrible book.

If you want to learn about American “art” literature, William Faulkner and “Light In August” would be a terrific place to start your education. And, if you’ve just read something so terrible that you need a brain cleansing, the works of William Faulkner are a gray place to look for tremendous beauty.

Testing Android Accessibility: The Programmers’ Perspective

Introduction

[This is an edited and corrected version of the article I posted on 2/21/2014. As always, when a factual correction is presented, I go back and fix the problems. I’ve listed the two factual corrections in a section following the Introduction section. I’ve also made a few grammatical changes but these change nothing at all in the theme of the article.]

Thus far, we’ve explored Android accessibility from my personal perspective a (totally blind user who doesn’t read braille) and from the view of a deaf-blind person who access his computational devices using braille only. The results of these extensive bits of research (I spent three months using a Google Nexus/7 on a daily basis and Scott tested as much as possible with braille only) demonstrate that, from the perspective of these two classes of user, that, out-of-the-box, the Android accessibility experience is dismal. This article, the third and probably last entry in my Android series demonstrates why, according to a number of blind Android developers, this is the case.

Corrections

I was under the impression that the Android GUI was based in Gnome’s GTK. I had heard and had this confirmed by a Google employee and a pair of experts in such things. After posting the article, Matt Campbell (author of the SystemAccess screen reader as well as all of the other programs from Serotek) sent me an email saying that I had got this detail wrong. Later in the day, Peter Korn, the guy behind the excellent accessibility framework in GTK, posted a comment correcting me as well and, well, if anyone would know it is Peter so I’ve removed references to the relationship between Android and GTK from this article and replaced it with a generic paragraph on accessibility API from which Google could have used to, to misquote Isaac Newton, “stand on the shoulders of giants like Peter, the Apple and Microsoft teams, Aaron Leventhal and all of us who participated in some way in working on the excellent accessibility API on the other platforms.”

Steve Nut, the guy from Serotek’s “That Android Show” posted a largely erroneous comment (see below) in which he stated that Kindle on Android is “accessible” which, given my high standard for the definition of the word “accessible,” it is not. He is correct in his assertion that, indeed, Kindle does exist on Android so I added the adjective “accessibly” after the word “exists” in the paragraph where I mention it. In a comment below, I’ve asked Steve (a really good guy in spite of his fan-droid fixation) to write a specific definition of the word “accessible” so I might understand how he can conclude that, indeed, Kindle is “accessible” on Android. I sincerely hope he posts such as I honestly do not understand how anyone can use the word “accessible” to describe something that does nothing more than talk and is completely, 100% inaccessible to our deaf-blind friends like Scott.

Lastly, I decided to remove the word “Kindle” from this article entirely. When I tried using it on Android, I found a pile of accessibility problems. There are workarounds to the biggest problems I found and, frankly, including Kindle in this article is just a distraction as, while some find it accessible enough to use, I don’t want to spend any more time thinking about it.

Who Am I?

For readers who do not know my background, I’ve been programming computers since 1971 when I wrote my first program at age eleven in the computer science area of Lawrence Berkeley Labs (LBL) in California. I became a professional computer programmer when I accepted my first job in the business in 1979 at Lincoln Savings (don’t blame me, I was only 19 years old and never met Charles Keating). In 1983, I moved to the Boston area and jumped into personal computer software development. When, in 1998, after taking a couple of years off from making software as I had lost the last of my vision, I accepted a job as Director of Software Engineering and later would be promoted to the VP position at Freedom Scientific. Needless to say, I understand how to make software as I’ve been doing so for the majority of my life and, baby, we’re not so young anymore.

Nonetheless, I have never even tried to write a program on the Android platform. I do not know the Java programming language which is what most Android software is written in. I’m mostly a C/C++ and assembly language programmer and I don’t know a whole lot about more modern programming systems, languages, UI and so on. Thus, for the purposes of this article, I took a number of posts from the accessibility@google.com mailing list written by blind programmers whom I know personally and have called a few blind Android programmers on the phone for further clarifications. These other programmers have all made fully accessible software on Windows, iOS, OSX, Gnome and have done so in multiple versions of these OS over the years. These people work at APH, in the PhD program at NC State University, EZ Fire and, in one case, had worked on the popular “Q Read” book reading software for Windows.

My personal expertise in this subject comes from having a solid understanding of how software is made and, having worked on the committee that whose work product was intended to be a cross platform accessibility API but that, instead, led to the Gnome, Apple and Microsoft (UIA) accessibility API which, while incompatible with each other, provide a full set of features that developers can use to easily make their software accessible.

A Generic Look at Accessibility API

Over the years, there have been a number of books, articles, web sites and other sorts of publications that provide a list of all of the controls needed in a graphical user interface (GUI). I will not take the time here to summarize them as this isn’t an article on GUI but, suffice it to say, all modern GUI with any popularity (Windows, OSX, Gnome, iOS and Android) provide all of these different types of control for programmers to use in their software.

On Windows (XP or newer), OSX (Tiger or newer), Gnome (2.0 or higher) and iOS (version 3 or higher), every one of the 20 or so controls available in the GUI has a corresponding element in the accessibility API. The most complicated of the popular controls is the “web view” which a programmer might use to add HTML information to a piece of software and, of course, the web control should behave identically to a web browser when a user of access technology encounters such.

The Android Accessibility API

For a long time, most of the three months I spent with the Nexus/7, I made the wild assumption that most of the accessibility problems Scott and I had encountered and documented in the previous articles were the result of the Google branded apps ignoring the accessibility API, a programming crime if one intends to do no evil as such programming decisions enforce discrimination against our population. While this action is horribly wrong, especially at a company that can easily afford to get it right, it is easy to fix. To put all controls into the tab/swipe order, to ensure that all controls have labels, help text and such is nothing more than typing and can be remediated easily by an intern with the IDE in hand.

Then, my friend Tyler Spivey tried to port Q Read, an Windows based epub reader to Android and I started to learn that the Android accessibility API, the infrastructure necessary to ensure a fully accessible GUI, was sorely substandard when compared with Windows, iOS, OSX and Gnome.

What makes this all very confusing is that the Android accessibility is the newest in a line of increasingly powerful accessibility frameworks on the market today. When MSAA was the only accessibility API it was the “best” one by default. MSAA wasn’t very good but it was the first and developers concerned with accessibility learned a lot from it. The next generation of accessibility frameworks, Gnome/GTK, iAccessible2, UIA, OSX (in Tiger) showed dramatic improvements with concepts like “relationships” and “contexts” making their first appearance as well as being the first group of accessibility API to support large blocks of text and complex objects like web controls. The latest generation of accessibility API come from Apple on iOS and Google on Android. Having had the shoulders of giants on which to stand, how did Apple continue to show progress and innovation in the iOS accessibility API while Google, given mountains of reference materials and access to every accessibility professional on Earth (we all have our price) showed a major step backward in this type of technology?

Making An Accessible Book Reader for Android

Tyler Spivey, a blind Canadian hacker of tremendous skill and reputation for doing what other programmers cannot (among those in the know), tried to port Christopher Toth’s popular epub reader, Q Read, to Android. The first step in this process is to create a text control in which the app can stuff its data. As this is 2014 and that every other major operating system (Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s iOS and OSX and GNU/Linux running the Gnome desktop) provides a text control that is fully accessible out-of-the-box, Tyler expected that Android would also provide such and, sadly, he was greatly disappointed.

In any operating system other than Android, one gets an accessible text control “for free.” Using pseudo code, to add a text control that allows a screen reader (for instance) to provide features like reading by object type (headings and the like), semantic elements (word, sentence, paragraph, character), filling out forms and performing every other task available in virtually all other systems, one writes code that looks like the following:

MyAccessibleTextControl = new GenericTextControl;

That’s right folks, a programmer who wants a fully accessible text control in his app only needs to write a single line of code and it will work with any useful screen reader on that platform. For those of you who enjoy attacking me with ad hominem and repeat that my opinion is colored by a “love” I have for iOS, I’ll remind you that this example is true not just on iOS but also on Windows, OSX and Gnome.

The substandard Android accessibility framework will allow for making a text control accessible. I don’t know every type of control used by Barnes and Noble in their Nook app so I’m uncertain if the main reading window is a standard Android text control or if it’s entirely custom but B&N have obviously spent a tremendous amount of time and money to make an accessible book reader for Android, time and money that is not required to do so on any other OS.

An Inaccessible Web Control

In current software, especially on mobile platforms, many programmers like including a web control in their app so they can display HTML information and use the web control to drive features in the app itself. Like every other popular OS, Android provides a web control in its UI library. Unfortunately, largely because the web control is built on top of the Chrome code base (this only beam true when Google released the Kit Kat revision of Android) and Chrome, as a stand alone app or as a web control, is simply not accessible in the way that web controls are in Windows, Gnome, iOS or OSX.

Again, using pseudo code to illustrate the issue, making an accessible web control on the other popular operating systems would look something like:

MyAccessibleWebControl = new genericWebControl; 

Windows programmers may need to add a couple of lines of code to ensure that the control has properly gotten focus but this detail requires a total of fewer than five lines of code on any OS other than Android where providing a fully accessible web control in an app can require hundreds of lines of code, special JavaScript code to tell only one screen reader on Earth what to say and, in general, even in the best circumstances, will provide a sorely substandard experience for the end users.

What We Lose Due to Having No Accessible Text or Web Control

Let’s take a look at a lot of popular software used by blind people on other operating systems. We have programs like Q Read, VoiceStream, NLS Bard Mobile and others that depend on having an accessible web and/or text control. These useful and popular programs do not exist or are not fully accessible on Android. In two cases, I’ve had the opportunity to communicate directly with the developers of these programs and asked them why they hadn’t ported their software to Android. The answer was identical in all cases, “we tried porting to it, we do not have the resources to make the web or text control accessible.”

If you want to point to some of the very accessible apps available on Android, programs like the popular Nearby Explorer for instance, I need only remind you that these are usually “self voicing” applications that work around the broken accessibility framework by talking directly to a speech synthesizer. These “ghetto” apps are used exclusively by blind people and dash the notion of universal design by ignoring such principles. Ghetto software was a necessary evil in the days before accessibility API as making a mainstream app fully accessible was very difficult. The excellent accessibility frameworks on iOS, Windows, Gnome and OSX obviate this requirement as, with the new technology common to all platforms other than Android one can make a mainstream app as accessible as anything targeted specifically to the population of people with print impairment.

Some apps designed specifically for our community, apps that perform special tasks that most mainstream users wouldn’t care for should have their UI designed using the same principles of universal design as the mainstream apps. Some of these apps will be useful to people with print disabilities unrelated to blindness and the AT they employ needs the same compliance as do programs used by blind people.

Is Making An Accessible Web Control Too Hard For Google?

If one simply takes a look at the Android version of the FireFox browser, developed by Mozilla Foundation, a group with a budget when rounded to integers comes to 0% of the Google revenue stream, they will find as accessible a browser window as exists anywhere, on any OS, ever. If a team with no money at all (when compared to Google’s dollars) and a staff tiny in comparison can do it, making a fully accessible web control and, indeed, making Chrome into a useful solution, cannot possibly be too difficult for a company like Google to accomplish. Similar companies, Microsoft and Apple have done it for years now, the Gnome Foundation does it really well, what, therefore, is the cause of Google’s failure to comply with generally accepted accessibility practices?

What Does Google Need to DO to Remedy These Problems

At the API level, to make Android as accessible as is the generally accepted standard, they must:

  • Make the accessibility API more “automatic” as it is on the other OS. It should be nearly impossible to use a standard control, whether something simple like a button or complex like a web view and not get the accessibility by doing more than typing a few words into edit boxes in the IDE.
  • Fix Chrome, both as a stand-alone browser and as a control in other apps, to be as accessible, using the same generic accessibility techniques as the other OS, as IE, FireFox or Safari on various other platforms.
  • Fix the text control in the same manner as the web one.

To make Google branded apps accessible, Google must:

  • Enforce its own internal accessibility standards on its own product teams as part of the the other requirements for releasing software to the public. This is, perhaps, the most frustrating part of Google’s poor accessibility as accomplishing this simple goal would be very inexpensive in terms of engineering hours, testing and so on. That Google doesn’t already do this demonstrates that they do not have a corporate wide accessibility policy but, instead, leave the decision as to whether to enforce segregation against this population up to individual product teams.
  • Make sure that all of its web apps, Google Docs, Analytics and such are fully compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) at its AA level. Soon, this will be the requirement for all US federal government sales under the Section 508 Refresh so, if they hope to sell to America’s largest customer, they should probably get started on this effort now. Of course, if “doing no evil” is part of their actual strategy, Google should do all of this because discrimination is evil and they should stop doing it on purely moral grounds.

Conclusions

The only conclusion I can come to regarding Google’s accessibility, from the perspective of a career software engineer, is that it is a failure. It is probably not irreparable but, as they are one of the wealthiest and most powerful technology companies on Earth, that they claim to have an accessibility strategy, that they’ve released products with the claim that they are accessible, that zero Google branded apps on a Nexus/7 running Kit Kat are entirely accessible, that Google Docs, Analytics and other of their web apps completely ignore WCAG and a long laundry list of other Google accessibility failures, I must conclude that poor accessibility in Google products is intentional as, otherwise, what is the logical conclusion?

Afterward

I’m sure this article, although entirely based in fact, data and the impressions of experts, will draw me a pile of ad hominem from the fan-droids. If you are one of these people and you want to tell me that I write these articles only because I “love” iOS or Apple in general, I ask that you first read an article I wrote when I did the BlindConfidential blog. It’s called “Apple Just Sucks” and describes the opinions I then held of that company before they set out on their excellent accessibility effort. When I write that something has excellent accessibility, it is because I’ve tested it extensively and when a new player comes along with something better, I revise my opinions based on the new realities. In the BlindConfidential days, if one goes back and reads all of the articles about screen readers I wrote then, they would notice that, when I started, I wrote that JAWS in Windows XP was the best solution and, at the end, I had switched to Macintosh. I had used a Windows Mobile T-Mobile Dash running the Code Factory screen reader for a few years as it was the best thing out there, then, when Apple released the 3GS with built-in screen reader and all, I switched.

The opinions I hold are not based in my own personal preferences, that would mean I’m speaking from a statistically insignificant sample size of one. To make matters worse, my personal preferences tend toward UNIX like command line shells, using emacs for a whole lot of things and, generally, having a very “nerdy” view of technology. When I write about accessibility, I do so with one eye on generally accepted standards and guidelines and the other eye on usability when compared to systems people with vision impairment are already accustomed to using.

People yell at me, you just want Android to be the same as iOS,” which is true on the macro level, I want Android to be (rounded to integers) 100% compliant with its own, internal, defined entirely by people at Google, accessibility API the way that iOS is already. Apple even takes iOS accessibility a step further in that, along with being 100% compatible with its internal accessibility API in all of its apps that come out-of-the-box in an iOS/7 device, all Apple branded iOS apps that one can download from its AppStore are also fully compliant with its accessibility framework. I do not insist that Android have the same apps, the same functionality, the same user interface or any of the features that, competitively, would make a difference, I just insist that it become fully compatible with its own standards the way that Apple and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft and the Gnome Foundation have already done. That isn’t “bias” toward Apple but, rather, a strong inclination toward generally accepted standards for accessibility.

I thank the people on the “Eyes Free” blind Android user mailing list for setting me straight about so many facts that I had gotten wrong in my early analysis of the Nexus/7 I bought back in October. They also pointed out what, in fact, in my assertions were purely opinion and, as a result, forced me to work much harder on these articles than anything I had previously written on this blog. Typically, when I do a technology review, I would have spent between hours and a few days evaluating such; with the series of Android articles, I spent more than three months doing the user research and many hours reading email posts, doing quick and dirty statistical analysis of the type of problems reported on Eyes Free versus user lists for iOS and Windows and much more. That these articles have become some of the most popular in the history of this blog reflects the extra work as the articles are fact and data driven and, since I published the revised and corrected versions of the articles (I’ve fixed a few relatively minor things people have reported as incorrect) in the series, not a single fact has been disputed by thousands of readers.

So, if you love Android so much and want to yell at me, feel free. I’ve never edited a comment for anything but to remove racist and sexist epithets and, as you can read here and in the BlindConfidential archives, you can see that I’ve allowed any commenter to say whatever they want about me. I do request (not insist), though, that you try to attack my articles with some level of intellectual clarity. Saying, “Well, I love my Android device,” is a nice statement of opinion but it neglects any notion of best practices, standards and guidelines and, frankly, it’s an entirely selfish view of things as the standards were developed in such a manner as to address issues faced by people with a panoply of different disabilities and, just because you can use something, doesn’t mean that it is accessible to everyone else. This specific point is illustrated greatly in Scott’s article about the experience of a deaf-blind user of Android which, unlike my first article, received absolutely no criticism. Sadly, if Google’s accessibility API actually worked properly and they were faithful to using it in their apps, Scott would be enjoying using an Android tablet today, alas, it is impossible for him to use.

If you insist that Android is accessible just because you can enjoy it, you are, by making the claim that Android is accessible, is no more than dooming others who, for any variety of reasons from disabilities other than yours too having a different aptitude for technology, to a miserable experience compared to that which they can enjoy on iOS, Windows, GNU/Linux/Gnome or OSX. The fact is, whether you like it or not, “accessibility” due to laws like CVAA and ADA Restoration Act are growing a legal definition and, if the level of accessibility out-of-the-box in an Android system is allowed to pass as “accessible” we will be lowering the bar for the definition of “accessible” when compared to all other major operating systems. It is essential that we, as a community, push the highest bar that currently exists as the minimum standard for accessibility as, otherwise, we’ll never get anything better.

Chicken Nugget, Accessible Twitter Client Released

Some people send me press releases when they do something new in accessibility. I tend not to publish them and have never published one verbatim. As I edited this one as a favor to its author, though, I’ll let it stand on its own. I use the Chicken Nugget Twitter client when I’m on my Windows 8.1 box and I like it a lot. Having switched from Macintosh where I’ve used the same Twitter client for years, I found that my “muscle memory” caused me to hit incorrect keystrokes but, as this is a different interface, I can’t blame the authors for not making a clone of my favorite Twitter client as they have done so much more in Nugget than I can currently enjoy using on Macintosh. So, here’s the Chicken Nugget press release, please, if you are a Windows user who enjoys Twitter, go to the Get Accessible Apps web site and buy this software.

Accessible Apps announces Chicken Nugget, powerful new Twitter client for the Windows Operating System

Chicken Nugget features unprecedented access to Twitter at an affordable price

Denver Colorado, US,—January 9, 2014–Accessible Apps today announced Chicken Nugget, a powerful new Twitter client for the Windows platform featuring instant access to the social networking service through an intuitive and highly responsive interface. Christopher Toth, head of Accessible Apps and primary author of Chicken Nugget states, “We set out to build a Twitter client that we, as blind people could use conveniently while also including all of the features people without disabilities might want.”

Along with all of the features users of many different Twitter clients enjoy, Chicken Nugget users can send an receive tweets while focused in any application on their computer, using its innovative global hotkeys. These and all other Chicken Nugget features automatically speak through any installed screen reader, the software used by blind and otherwise print impaired computer users to access information in their daily lives. Users with diminished vision can enjoy Chicken Nugget’s features through its well designed and very simple graphical user interface, providing the ideal hybrid of both worlds.

“Chicken Nugget represents the next step in our continuing plan to provide people with vision and other print impairments affordable accessibility to services enjoyed by our sighted peers”, says Christopher Toth, lead programmer at Accessible Apps.

With nearly a year of active development, Chicken Nugget is the most polished, powerful, and well-designed accessible Twitter client available for blind and otherwise print impaired user. Meanwhile, Chicken Nugget can be used by any person who prefers a clean, convenient and uncluttered interface to Twitter.

Unlike other accessible Twitter clients, Chicken Nugget is optimized to minimize its impact on system resources. It will run well even on older netbooks, and special care was taken during the development process to ensure that it will be kind to battery life for laptop users.

Chicken Nugget provides all of the features of the Twitter website and much more, including translating tweets into the user’s language, playing audio other users post, and locating tweets with geo info.

It doesn’t matter if you are new to Twitter, or are an experienced user. If you have several Twitter accounts, Chicken Nugget is here to grow with you.

Chicken Nugget users can:

  • Seamlessly control an unlimited number of Twitter accounts, while never even leaving your active application.
  • Share news stories with your followers by simply Pressing a single global hotkey and tweeting from within your web browser or feed reader.
  • Store and archive an unlimited number of tweets without ever causing Chicken Nugget to become sluggish, no matter how many tweets fill your timelines.
    • Easily search through your timelines making locating a link someone may have shared with you months earlier a snap.
  • Perform real time Twitter searches, so you can stay up to date with exactly what’s going on in the world, as it happens.
  • Mark a given timeline to be automatically read, so you can create a Twitter search read aloud as the items arrive.

About Accessible Apps

Accessible Apps creates high quality applications for multiple computing platforms which give people who are blind and vision impaired access to the modern computing world that the sighted take for granted. They offer low-cost solutions for many of the problems which face people with vision impairment on the web today, including access to ebooks, social networking, music, podcasts, and more. Formed in 2010, Accessible Apps is made up of a group of dedicated and talented developers with a passion for accessibility.