Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What is the Future of Screen Readers anyway?

A week or so ago, the American Council of the Blind held a Future of Screen Readers panel as part of the Information Access Committee seminar at the ACB annual convention. Serotek was one of the companies invited to attend remotely via Skype. Other remote participants were GW Micro and NVDA. Unfortunately technology failed (through no fault of Skype) and we remote participants did not get to contribute. But I thought the panel questions were extremely pertinent to all blind people and that it was important we add our voice to the conversation. So this blog post is Serotek’s way of making sure our voice, and the voice of many who share our view, is also heard.
I’d like to begin with Question 6, because it separates us from most panel participants. I’ll come back and address each of the ten questions – which are included in their entirety at the end of this post.
Question 6 said: “Imagine that you are participating on a panel five years from now. What do you hope you can tell us about the screen reader space and the role of your screen reader in it?”
Serotek hopes wholeheartedly that in 2015 we can say the screen reader space has vanished. This change will be brought about through our efforts as a company, and through advocacy by consumers, to encourage universal accessibility in all mainstream products. When screen readers were invented in the early 1980’s they were essential tools to make an inaccessible digital world accessible. They were never meant to be a business, only a means to an end. They were developed by private companies aided by government funding to correct an inequity and make it possible for blind people to use digital tools to become economically viable again. They were for vocational rehab, helping us get off the dole and back to work as contributing members of society. Unfortunately this wonderful leg up soon became a barrier for blind people. Digital technology raced ahead but without universal accessibility built in. Screen readers lagged behind and rather than leveling the playing field, they tended to add extra cost and training while restricting access to the most advanced mainstream software features. Companies producing screen readers were more concerned with preserving the government funding cash cow than with helping the blind community achieve total equality. Fortunately that business model is finally disintegrating. We’ve been a part of the push to change the model from day one of our existence, but truthfully it didn’t really start to shift until mainstream companies like Apple embraced universal accessibility in their core product design.
So you know where we’re coming from. Let’s move back to the original order of the questions.


Question 1 asked us to describe how our business model will impact the overall market for screen readers.
Serotek is a blindness products and technology company. Our sole purpose is to help our blind community fully enjoy the digital lifestyle. For us, screen readers are a necessary bridge until native operating systems have full accessibility for the blind built in. To that end we have made the screen reader very affordable – even free in the web-based SAToGo version. We believe accessibility is a fundamental human right and blind folks should not be penalized financially to achieve access. We think the blind community is short-changed when huge resources have to be focused on fundamental accessibility. Funds and teaching time should zero in on the applications not the access. Vocational rehab should be more like a driving school. Bring your own car and we’ll teach you how to drive. Where government subsidies are necessary they should shift from accessibility to the real applications people need in all facets of their lives – work, socializing, and play. The economy is driving this change whether we like it or not. Serotek is working hard to deliver the kind of services and training tools that make it affordable and easy.
Question 2 asked what is our strategy in the emerging remote computing, cloud computing, and virtual machine world.
We were, of course, first among adaptive technology vendors in all these areas. We were first in remote computing with products that used the web to allow users to connect to their home machines; first in developing accessible remote training solutions; and first in cloud-resident, downloadable AT applications. We are first in releasing AT products that can be accessed from the whole range of digital devices – phones, computers, I-pads, netbooks. Serotek is committed to being on the leading edge, assuring the blind community access to the power of the newest and best technology.
Question 3 asks how we can improve support for Braille.
System Access is the only Windows screen reader with true plug-and-play braille support, but we believe it's possible to do better still. Serotek took the lead in supporting the HID standard for Braille and refused to create interfaces for any Braille display product not using the HID standard. Now, all but one Braille device manufacturer (Freedom Scientific) supports HID. Why is that important? Interface standards are fundamental to universal accessibility. How can it be better? While the USB HID standard facilitates plug-and-play operation, even HID-capable displays use proprietary interfaces to communicate with the screen reader on the host computer or smart device. And while most braille display manufacturers are quite willing to help screen reader developers in adding support for their displays, we believe that interface standards are fundamental to universal accessibility. As devices and applications proliferate interface standards make it possible for mainstream developers to include accessibility in their core design. If we want universal accessibility and we include the deaf/blind in our goal, Braille is essential. Serotek is actively collaborating with both Braille manufacturers and software developers to develop and promote a standard interface between braille displays and the increasing variety of devices that can use them. There is no room for proprietary solutions in this arena.

Question 4 asks what are the challenges and opportunities in AJAX and HTML5.
AJAX was an evolutionary step in Web Development; HTML5 is now the media rich standard language. Serotek is always on the leading edge adopting and applying these standards as they are accepted. This is fundamental to our mission to assure the blind community has access to the latest digital tools and applications. Many developers, both mainstream and adaptive technology, look backward and struggle to protect their past investment in code and hardware. Serotek is focus forward. We bring our legacy base along by keeping them fully up-to-date with continuous improvements to our products including, from time to time, complete re-writes if necessary to fully employ the latest tools.
Question 5 asks how we can reduce the time lag between mainstream innovation and availability to the blind community.
An active collaboration with the manufacturers of mainstream products must begin during a product’s development cycle, not after it is released. In this way, AT vendors can not only ensure compatibility with the current versions of their own products, but can leverage the opportunity to educate manufacturers on accessibility and universal design, moving us ever closer to the day when AT vendors are no longer required at all. We’ve provided quality support well before the public release dates for products like Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Office 2010, and these are just a few examples of our dedication not to leave our customers behind. When mainstream development moves forward, we move forward to match it. . Our goal is no time lag – and so far we’ve met that goal.
Question 6 was answered in the introduction.
Question 7 asks what we can do to ensure our users have the best training and support?
Serotek’s products are intuitive and easy to learn. We want consumers to spend more time actively using a computer, rather than concentrating on learning a screen reader first and then moving on to the tasks they ultimately want to perform. We provide tech support by phone or online, but the best part is that our customers are able to help and learn from each other. This can be done through remote tools built in to the product, or through participation in community forums or voice chats. We produce software designed to help trainers and technical support professionals service not only our products, but any technical product one on one using the Internet. This allows trainers to reach and train more people to use their computers and other devices to their fullest potential, regardless of which assistive technology they choose to use. We produce podcasts and tech chats distributed on the serotalk.com web site, aimed at educating consumers about the available mainstream and AT solutions to improve the quality of their digital life. Rather than passive participation, our community submits reviews and other materials to be included in these presentations, and this type of community involvement benefits everyone. Our design philosophy is to continuously simplify user interfaces; to use available standards wherever possible; and to use the power of social networking among our users, trainers and technicians to assure no question goes unanswered.
Question 8 asks what our top three pieces of advice are for developers of software, websites, and interactive environments.
Simple:
1. Provide us documentation.
2. Recognize the blind community as consumers, with disposable income, ready, willing and able to spend significant funds for the latest and best technology. We are talking hundreds of millions of potential users, worldwide, who have been ignored in the past. Stop ignoring US.
3. Stick to standards. The world is too complex – too many devices and languages -- to add yet another proprietary interface. Apply universal design principles from the start so as to leave no one behind.
Question 9 asks what will have to occur for Microsoft to follow Apple in the use of integrated screen reading.
It is important to note that Microsoft has made incremental improvements to their “Ease of Access” program. In Windows Vista, Microsoft introduced Speech Recognition to their built in access options. They have refined it for Windows 7 and we have demonstrated how System Access can be used with this integrated technology on the Serotalk podcasts.
Also, in Windows 7, Microsoft has introduced enhancements to the Windows Magnifier that allows it to display in a full screen mode. This is a vast improvement over the previous thin strip of a magnified window that was found on machines in the Windows XP era. This new Windows Magnifier, when combined with other Windows effects for altering color and mouse pointers, can create a compelling argument that Low Vision users need not pay hundreds of dollars for minimal screen magnification.
Change is coming. It is happening. Microsoft is slower than we would like, but we have to remember they are hosting 90% of the computers in existence. Every change is a big deal. The last time they tried including accessibility they got a lot of grief from the community and they backed off. Now they are moving forward. We are working with them as we will any vendor looking to make its products more accessible.
Question 10 asks what we find most frustrating in the market.
It is the lack of co-opitition among screen reader manufacturers. We say this because we are blind guys first and anything that improves capability for our community should be celebrated and used. The industry needs more innovation and less litigation. We applaud companies like GW Micro and the Braille display manufacturers that have openly partnered with us and others to improve things for everyone.
We should all share the goal of making things better for the community first. Profit is important, but not at the cost of reducing accessibility.
We applaud ACB for this highly pertinent discussion. We are in a unique time in the history of our community when our paradigm is shifting under our feet – and for the better. The latest generation of mainstream technology is more accessible than ever. Standards are moving forward and finally most of the contributors are agreeing to play by the standards. Within a very short time the idea that “accessibility is a right” moved from the lunatic fringe to absolute mainstream. Serotek, as you all know, has happily waged the battle at the fringe because what is best for the blind community is best for us.
Here are the ACB panel questions:
Questions for the “Future of Desktop Screen Readers” Panel


1. Each of your company has a different business model for marketing and selling your screen reader. Based on this model, describe how your product is expected to impact the overall market for screen readers.

2. The role of computing has shifted dramatically in the past few years with much computing being done either remotely—through some kind of cloud-based virtual operating system—or virtual machines via products such as VMware. Going forward, tell us about your strategy to support remote and virtual computing with your screen reader.


3. As you know, braille is absolutely vital to many aspects of the lives that we live as people who are blind or visually impaired including education, employment, and literacy. How do you imagine support for braille can be improved in your product?

4. The future role of the World Wide Web is often described as that of a highly interactive, media-rich desktop. As we move into the era where this role becomes more and more evident with the gradual implementation of such technologies as AJAX and those collectively known as HTML5, what challenges do you foresee your screen reader facing? What opportunities do you imagine these interfaces to bring?

5. With rapid changes, often dramatic at times, in operating systems, browsers, and other technologies, screen reader users express frustration that they are unable to take advantage of the technologies used by their sighted peers for months—if not years. In addition, the interaction model for each screen reader may differ significantly. What collaborative steps can you take to reduce the lag and different interaction modalities for increased benefit to users?


6. Imagine that you are participating on a panel 5 years from now. What do you hope you can tell us about the screen reader space and the role of your screen reader in it?

7. Training and support are essential for most screen reader users. What innovative steps can you take in the future to ensure that your users have the best training and support available? What are some challenges are you likely to face?


8. What are the top three things you would tell developers who develop software, websites, and interactive environments?

9. By introducing a screen reader as an integral part of the operating system available for every user and at no additional cost, Apple has changed the dynamics of the screen reader industry. What changes need to occur for Microsoft to bring about a similar model for Windows? What reasons are there for not taking such a step?

10. As a developer of a screen reader, what to you is the most frustrating aspect of being in this market?

3 comments:

rat said...

i would like to point out you forgot to mention that Apple's voiceover has plug and play with braille displays as well, via bluetooth or USB.

Anonymous said...

Whatever the future of screen reader technology has in store for us, I sure hope Freedom Scientific is not part of that future. FS, with its anti-competitive and anti-cooperative actions, is damaging a very fragile industry.
Their refusal to participate in the standardized braille display driver initiative, their attempts to prevent Jaws users from using third-party displays, and the lawsuits against their competitors (I'm sure Apple, Code Factory and The NVDA Team are next), clearly demonstrate that FS doesn't care about accessibility. If the latest version of Jaws doesn't support software that's used by a large percentage of corporations, too bad! We may get around to supporting the version that's just been depricated once we finish coding the new JFlush(r) technology, which allows you to flush your toilet from anywhere you have access to JAWS.

steve said...

Is there a recording of the presentation somewhere to hear GW Micro and the NVDA project's response to these questions?