Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Who's to Blame?

Recent blame-storming blog posts have had a lot to say about the state of accessibility on the Web and who is at fault. Candidates include the major AT companies, Web developers, mainstream software providers, society at large, and the blind community itself. I would suggest "all of the above."

The fact is that there is plenty of blame to share, and everyone has had a hand in it. The AT industry is most visible because the established AT software providers are charging very high prices for their software and not delivering accessibility to state-of-the-art applications and environments. Web developers get kicked because they ignore accessibility issues in their Web design. Mainstream software companies which could easily include accessibility within their products are guilty. They can't be bothered because there's no money in it. Society assuages its guilt by funding the purchase of expensive accessibility software, and this well-meaning program creates a significant barrier to development. The established AT providers are able to charge very high prices for their wares with impunity, and they are reluctant to displace these cash cows. Instead they build on their legacy codebase and milk the public funding for all it's worth. The result is that only a small percentage of blind people achieve access, and the whole AT industry is so small that it attracts little or no venture funding. In this day when two guys with an idea can create a mega-billion-dollar social networking site, no one much cares about an industry that may achieve $200 million, overall, in revenues in a good year.

But we, the blind community, have to shoulder the majority of the blame. We are expert complainers, but not much good at supporting those few venturesome souls who try to do us a bit of good. We are hooked on the handout and loathe to reach into our pockets and pay our very own dollars for any technology, no matter how it might improve our lifestyle. In our collective wisdom, no good deed goes unpunished. If a venturesome soul provides us with a new product that costs half of what the traditional products cost but delivers 95% of the capability, we complain about its lack of functionality and its price, and we let the government shell out another $1,000 or so to give us an upgrade of the traditional software that we despise. We play the victim and heap scorn on any of our members who shun the victim's role and attempt to compete in the sighted world.

Well, here's the truth. It doesn't matter who's to blame, and it doesn't matter what the current state of adaptive technology is. The fact is that the world is changing, and accessibility will be part of that change. Accessibility is a right, not a privilege, and the very idea that the government has to shell out thousands so that a single individual can have access to a few bits of data is ludicrous. And it will go away.

In Darrell's ten things we must demonstrate, he missed the most important one. What we need to demonstrate is that accessibility works for everyone. Every person is blind some of the time -- or at least has other uses for their vision. Exclusively visual mobile Web access from cell phones, IPhones, and Blackberries is ridiculous because people are squinting at tiny screens. They have a choice of seeing the actual information without the context or the context without the information. Driving a car, you can't see the screen at all if you want to stay on the road. The fact is that aural transmission of information works. And with the watershed improvements in speech recognition, browsing and social networking can be both eyes-free and hands-free.

One of our problems is that we blind people treat aural access much like readers treat the printed page -- that is, just a stream of words that we make sense of in our heads. We supply all the enhancements with our imagination. But in the sighted world, graphic novels are becoming popular because readers want more. They want the artist's picture along with the writer's word. They want enhanced presentation. We should be thinking along the same lines with regard to accessibility. We've come a long way with synthesized voices in the past couple of years, but it's lost on most of us because we listen at more than twice the normal speech rate. In a mainstream accessible mode the aural presentation needs to be enhanced -- dramatic voices, background music, sound effects. We need to "experience" the designer dress coming down the runway, as described by a top fashion reporter, not hear a twelve-word size, color, style catalog listing. You tell me that Target won't get behind accessibility if it means advertising its products better to their core consumers?

The entrenched AT suppliers face a real challenge. As Web applications come forward, accessibility is simply going to be there. And that means whole areas of the Web will be fully available to blind folks -- the social networking sites; the shopping; the news, information and entertainment. We know because we are working with this information every day at the System Access Mobile Network. True, there are still millions of inaccessible and poorly accessible sites around. And we've addressed that with technologies like C-SAW, where community members make inaccessible sites more accessible. It's noteworthy that when we offered C-SAW free of charge to the other AT vendors, they said, "Thanks, but no thanks." There is not a lot of cooperative spirit for the betterment of the community out there. I would submit that it isn't going to get much better, since a majority of the AT industry is now owned and operated by bean counters and not blind people.

Despite the tone of despair in the recent blog posts, I'm actually very hopeful. I see the early signs of change everywhere. I see a lot more people stepping up and choosing to go with a more user-friendly, technically up-to-date accessibility technology even when they have to pay for it out of their own pocket. I see a community that does come together around accessibility issues -- and which has made over 2,600 Web sites more accessible using C-SAW. That's real people helping other real people. That's community.

I see the past ten years in the AT industry as a technological eddy -- a stagnant place in the stream. But technology is flowing on, and the digital lifestyle is expanding every day with thousands of new applications. Accessibility is going to take hold in the emerging technologies. Maybe this is a pipe dream, but let me predict that in ten years there will not be an AT industry as we know it today. Accessibility will simply be a component of every application. And the current players need to focus on what their business will be then.

We have some exciting ideas; stay tuned.

1 comment:

Darren said...

I couldn't agree more. I recently made an article about the web developers role and responsibility in accessible designs.

I think that with improvements in standards and CSS support more people will find creating accessible designs easier.

I am to blame for the lack of accessibility in my own site but I too blame my time constraints and the little to no gratification or notification that I am doing something worthwhile.

I think things can only get better. I see less table based designs than I used to which shows that the web as a whole is beginning to make changes of improvement.