Friday, December 9, 2011

Communication: The Themes Remain the Same By Jeffrey D. Stark

The following is a reprint from a publication by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, entitled “Celebrating Our Accomplishments”. The publication covers issues including transportation, access, social policy, employment, and much more. We encourage you to read the entire publication, as there is plenty there to celebrate and be proud of. We’d like to share a specific section dealing with access and full inclusion here on the blog. Thanks to Jeffrey Stark for the excellent article, and thanks to all the contributors to the publication for providing such a positive illustration of how things are changing for the better for people with disabilities.

Communication: The Themes Remain the Same
By Jeffrey D. Stark

Communication is a very common theme that comes up time and time again in the disability community; whether that's access to information such as printed material or the ability to be included in a conversation. The barriers change as our world changes but the themes and common elements have remained the same over the last 30 years.

In a professional setting being able to communicate and having access to the information being communicated in many cases is the difference between being able to do the job and not being able to do it. If you can't hear the verbal information being provided, or you can't see the information being referenced, you are essentially excluded from an important component of the activity.

I, as a person who is blind, have found myself in this situation many times. If I go to a meeting and all the information is put up on a front projector, then I am essentially excluded from that material. One commonly proposed solution to this is to have the presenter or leader for a given activity read out whatever material they have on the flip chart or front projector. As you can imagine, this is awkward and time consuming at the best of times and doesn't really let me review the material. As computers, laptops and electronic notetakers became commonplace, the proposed solution that used to be common was to distribute the material electronically in advance and hope I could figure out which document, page, slide and information was currently being referenced. If a group wanted to collaborate on the same document or material, then this becomes even less effective because my copy of the material gets more and more stale as the updates to the document occur.

My requirements are not unique and meetings and collaborative sessions have often been a barrier. This area has evolved tremendously over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, until recently many of the solutions were only available as separate solutions that each required a different technology component and required a huge undertaking to provide. Captioning, sign language interpretation, accessible information, accessible flip charts, alternate communication systems were all separate components and all had to be handled separately.

At a recent meeting I attended, for the first time in my career, I was able to play on an equal footing. I had access to the same information as my sighted peers during the meeting and had access to any new information or changes that happened on the front projector. They had this nifty box called an "Accessible Event Hotspot" that acted like an "accessible projector". I connected my laptop to the AE Hotspot and the same information that was projected on the front screen was also pushed out to my laptop. This meant that I could review it in my medium of choice using my technology of choice (a screen reader). As soon as a change happened on the presenter's screen, the same information was provided to me in real time. This same device can also be used to capture and present other channels of information such as captioning and signing. This essentially makes it an all-in-one solution for people who have hearing impairments, visual impairments, or print-related disabilities so participants can take full advantage of all aspects of any on-site or online event or presentation. This technology allows participants with disabilities to access slides, spreadsheets, web pages, documents and real-time captioning.

This is essentially full inclusion, where the various channels of information from the spoken information to the presented information can be supplemented in real time with equivalents that ensure that everyone can participate on a level playing field.

If you’d like more information about Accessible Event or the AE Hotspot, please call (612) 246-4818 or send an email to

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

System Access: The Alternative Commitment

As you know, Serotek is not a conventional assistive technology provider. In fact, we take pride in our willingness to think outside the box and leverage products that make a distinct mark on the customers we serve, but, the price of pulling away from the pack means succumbing to all manner of speculation perpetuated by competitors and by customers who rely on bias reviews to direct their own decisions. We have never shied away from defending our approach to development, and so following in that tradition, today we address a question that comes to our attention from time to time: Is System Access a full screen reader?

Well, to begin on common ground, let's first start by defining what a screen reader is. In the way of an impartial source, we can use the American Foundation of the Blind, which sets forth the following:

"Screen readers are software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer. A screen reader is the interface between the computer’s operating system, its applications, and the user. The user sends commands by pressing different combinations of keys on the computer keyboard to instruct the speech synthesizer what to say and to speak automatically when changes occur on the computer screen."[1]

Well, if we're going by these fundamental guidelines, then System Access is most certainly a full screen reader. Customers can install our product and interact with a growing number of popular applications that facilitate e-mail, word processing, web browsing and other key activities that are essential to daily tasks inside and outside of the office or classroom.

In its early days, it would have been fair to ask if our product could feasibly rise to the challenge of a traditional screen reader. Then again, we never promised more functionality than the product delivered. We understood that in its infancy, the product formerly known as Freedom Box that later included System Access 1.0 was a rudimentary solution with limited use of the off screen model to interact with applications, but even in 2002, many years after the birth of competing products, Freedom Box was hailed by the Teachers.Net Gazette as a product that "opened a new door for the blind and visually impaired, offering a new found freedom and a new kind of life."[2] That was high praise for a product that was so basic compared to the innovation we see today and when compared to the screen readers that had already been enjoying a prominent spotlight in the market.

There are at least three factors that feed people's hesitation to see System Access for what it is:

First, customers respond to marketing tactics that feed on human instinct. When you are sick, and when given a choice between the less expensive and the more expensive treatments, your instinct is to want the more expensive treatment because the higher cost must surely mean that the results are better. The same is true of technology. Accessibility concerns aside, you could buy the new Kindle Fire, or you could put down more money and buy the more expensive iPad because the majority says the latter outperforms the former. So it comes as no surprise that if competing screen readers cost $895 and $1,095, the experience must surely be sweeter. We often hear that not all is peace in paradise, but it's not our place to comment on other companies' ability to live up to expectations.

Second, there is a persistent view that a product cannot be considered a full screen reader if it does not allow for scripting. Such a view presumes that the absence of this feature was an oversight rather than an implementation by design. For the moment, Serotek does not buy into the practice of opening its product to scripting languages, and even if this were to change in the future, it would not be a dominant focus of our development.

To understand this aspect of our approach, it's important to recognize our distinction between user interface and user experience. User interface provides users with a core platform and enough tools to make that platform work for the specific needs of the end user. The manufacturer admits it does not know what the user might want to do with the product, so it provides scripting language support to help advanced users manipulate the platform to fit their needs. Such an approach is by no means a bad one, but it relies on users to devote many hours to learning the scripting language. It also sometimes requires many dollars to gain training if a consumer wants assistance with using the language to interact with and configure access to complex applications.

On the other hand, user experience boils down to nothing more complicated than creating a product that, to borrow Apple's philosophy, just works. Serotek has never claimed to outpace competing products on all fronts. We continue to cultivate a product that works very well for the most popular applications like ITunes, various e-mail clients, Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer and Google Chrome and a growing range of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. The scope of what System Access can deliver might be painted as limited, but limitations are only as concrete as the real world use of the consumer in question. System Access need not be configurable through scripting if the product is already delivering a solid experience for what it is advertised to accomplish.

Finally, Serotek has a specific customer in mind as it develops new products and services. We are thinking of the consumer who cannot afford to pay for competing products or for the software maintenance agreements to keep those products updated. Starting with monthly payment plans as little as $9.95 per month, System Access is priced well below other options on the market, and we are the only company with enough faith in the evolution of our product and it’s ability to continue to attract new customers to have eliminated software maintenance agreements. Our option is economical enough for people who are recent adopters of screen reading technology who need a straightforward introduction to assistive technology before plunging into murkier waters. It is an economical solution for people who believe in having easy to use yet powerful options instantly at hand.

We are also thinking of the consumer who enjoys the bells and whistles of competing products but require a consistent companion on hand when the competing product crashes or is unable to be installed due to lack of access to admin rights on the target machine. Nothing is more frustrating than encountering silence and having no way to get around it than to reboot the entire system to get things talking again. We would never suggest that System Access is without faults, but as far as offering an approach that delivers immediate and intuitive access, we stand by our commitment to make it work as easily and as consistently as possible. We are also the only company that has developed portable solutions that work under a minute on any PC you plug your thumb drive into with our product or access them via our Internet sites on any compatible version of Windows without the need for admin rights.

So, while we may not be the best choice for the software developer who requires specific tweaks to make her environment inhabitable, we are a perfect tool for the vast majority of users who want to take accessibility on the go and work anywhere, anytime, something best exhibited in the free service available on After all, why limit yourself to timed demonstrations when you could take our product for a more uninhibited test drive?

At Serotek, System Access provides a fundamental platform upon which our other services have been launched. We rolled out System Access during the days before we had options like NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA), and in fact, System Access might have never been born if NVDA had been an option back then. As things stood, the only choices were too expensive for a vast majority of blind consumers, and our commitment to making products as affordable as possible is as vigorous today as it was when we released our first beta.

So, is System Access a full screen reader? We believe in presenting you the evidence and letting you decide for yourself. Ultimately, the proof is in the performance and if the product works for your spasific applications. Right?
[1] Screen Readers. American Foundation of the Blind: Last accessed December 6, 2011
[2] The Freedom Box, Technology for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Melanson, Dave. Teachers.Net Gazette. Last accessed: December 6, 2011