Screen readers have been on the market for over 25 years now. I remember using my first screen reader in the 80s. Access to software has always been problematic. My first computer was an Apple 2E with an echo PC synthesizer. This computer ran with proprietary software that allowed the blind person to use a special customized word processor that worked with the synthesizer. Today we would call it a self-voicing application. At the time word processing had begun to have some of the same easy-to-use features that we are all familiar with and expect today. However my system “braille edit” did not have a spellchecker. In fact for formatting I needed to know special symbols and codes to embedded my text.
Today much of the mainstream market is accessible or at least to a degree. Blind people using assistive technologies can expect that their assistive technology will work within the same applications that their peers are using. A blind person can use a word processor, spreadsheet or database applications most of the time with little or low difficulty. However you will note that I said little or no difficulty. The less common an application is the less likely a blind user will not be able to access it.
More and more often I hear people ask “so why is there inaccessible software when we’ve known for so long how screen readers work” and we know of ways to make things work”. The more I think about this particular question the more I realize that in many ways we are to blame. My own office relies and depends on a database for our internal use that we would never expect our students to use. The screen reader I’m using to write this the most popular screen reader to date has its own administrative tools for the networking version that the screen reader can’t read. Yes a screen reader cannot read its own utilities. A blind administrator such as myself needs to work within the networking tools using workarounds and jury rigging. In fact with Microsoft Windows eight to be released in the next year or less it will still be the only operating system I am aware of that does not have an accessible installer. I’ve had to put off a major upgrade for a couple weeks now while I waited for assistance to do a Windows install.
With all the things I’ve mentioned above I bet you’re wondering why do I use this screen reader or why do I use Windows. The answer is to compete in this market what choice do I have. However those choices put me in a situation where I myself have caused more inaccessible products to be released. If I only had the ability to say to my screen reader manufacturer “I won’t buy any more of your products until your administrative tools are accessible“ and then also have all the thousands and thousands of other users say the same thing you could bet that this problem would be solved. But if I were to say it and nobody else would back me what good would it do. The database that our office uses internally is a very popular product. Several departments on campus have different flavors or iterations of the same product. The product is somewhat affordable and somewhat easier for non-technical people to use. Can I tell every single department on campus stop using this database and if I did tell them that would they listen? I can’t say statements like that putting my needs over the needs of many non-technical staff that need to track students as much as I need to. And if I did speak up and make some people stop using the product how would this affect the non-technical people. I need to be much more important to affect the market as a person with a disability more than impact as the many thousands of non-technical administrative assistants perhaps we would have fewer inaccessible products then we already do. But the sheer numbers just don’t work. I look again at my campus and from what I know that there are only six blind staff members on campus in a staff of 20 to 30,000. How can six people affect that many, Instead we are given readers and other tools that end up costing more for us to cope in the inaccessible environment.
I was speaking with one of my colleagues at another university that has a much stronger assistive technology policy. They are very open and strict about products they purchase being extraordinarily accessible. from the outside I watch this University and think of them as a leader in accessibility. However my colleague tells me that even their university makes decisions to often to by the inaccessible.
Recently our campus had a difficult decision about what to do when outsourcing some of our primary campus tools. We needed to find a more effective e-mail and calendaring system to modernize our capacity. Like many other campuses we were looking at the choices between Google and Microsoft. I praise our campus administration for making it through such a difficult process as well as they did. I appreciated the difficulty they had in making sure that everyone had a say in the process. I respect our administration even more because they specifically came to me as a known advocate for assistive technology to ask how I felt they should go. Ultimately I did not give them a yes or no in either direction. What I did was provide them the information that I know about how the two companies treat accessibility. I was very proud when I read through the very public decision matrix to see that accessibility was actually a line within the project. Even if they did not include my words in that matrix what the matrix showed was a picture of how the two companies deal differently with accessibility. Ultimately the campus went with Google not because it was the better product and if you look at the scoring Google actually did score lower but we went with Google because there is a visible trend of improvement overall. When it comes to accessibility Google declared openness and continued development to accessibility. However, Microsoft did not take any stance towards where accessibility would be in the future.
How can we as advocates for accessibility and technology help fix these problems in the future? In the open market the only way we can do this is through our buying power. My campus is a massive buying power and ultimately they said that what they want is improvement and change. The status quo although it may be accessible does have its little inaccessible gremlins that have never been addressed or changed. Apple has had an accessible installer since 2006 or earlier. Many UNIX versions or flavors have had accessible installers shortly thereafter. I seem to recall seeing a demonstration of how to install Solaris accessibly in 2007 or so. Two versions of Windows later and soon to be three were just not there yet.
How do we make sure that other institutions start to make the same kind of statement? People with disabilities need to speak up continually and eloquently. I’m a firm believer in winning people over to your side and not fighting to bring them over. I have worked for many years to demonstrate and educate this campus in what it means to be accessible. I had a small impact but more importantly the people I worked with have also had an impact. By teaching others about accessibility and access issues they themselves became advocates for the cause. I have never been aggressive or hostile to any program or person about accessibility instead I’ve always worked with them as a team member and always try to find a positive with every negative. Ultimately the people I work with become better advocates for accessibility than I could ever be independently. This work is how I feel I made a difference in some of our campuses decisions. I have recently been asked to join two national coalitions working on issues of adoption of technology. One of these coalitions is a group of universities working on a pilot for electronic text. This group is people from both IT and assistive technology organizations within the different universities. All of the people in this group want to find a way to make the products used in this pilot more accessible. I’m excited to be a part of such an organization but I know that we cannot be effective if the administrators at our campuses don’t take note of what we say. I feel especially lucky to know that when I do come out with an evaluation of how accessible a product is or not. That my campus will listen and take what I say into account. They may not follow my suggestions but I do know that at least part of what I say is important. Those of us in the field need to speak up often and loudly. We need to be sure that we have enough content and noise going to the administrators that some of it will sink in.
But now I want to speak to those administrators. Ultimately you the CIOs and the educational technology administrators and you the faculty are responsible for the future. If you decide to purchase a product or use a tool or utility that may not be ultimately accessible for everyone you’re sending a message to the manufacturers and vendors of products. Your message is loud and clear and has the force of the dollars or Euro or Yan or any other currency even open source behind it. When you buy a product that you don’t know it’s accessible you’re telling the world its okay to be inaccessible. You need to educate yourself about what makes a product accessible and be sure that what you’re buying or using is accessible. If you don’t know find one of us in the industry of assistive technology to help you check the item for accessibility. Don’t believe the vendor when they tell you it’s accessible. You wouldn’t buy a car that the salesman told you was fuel-efficient if it didn’t have an actual fuel efficiency rating. Why would you buy a product that the vendor tells you is accessible. Also be aware when you use open source products. The open source market tends to be more accessible by design but also has those inaccessible pitfalls and barriers. The reason for this is that making things work accessibly takes a few more steps that sometimes get missed. Open source products also suffer from the problem of too many cooks in the kitchen. An open source project may have all the commitment in the world to accessibility but the team that worked on one module may be all it takes to break that particular product. The plus to open-source technology though is if you find something that’s broken you’re more than welcome to fix it. So contributing back to the community and making a more accessible product is actually the best decision an administrator could make.
To answer the question in the title who is responsible for all the inaccessible technology in this world? I have to look extraordinarily close to home. After all I bought Windows I bought my screen reader I made the choice to use the tools I use and work around those problems in the products I need to deal with. I’m not saying the people that have disabilities should stop working within accessible products I’m just saying that we have some responsibility in this process to. Ultimately the finger can be pointed precisely at consumers of products. If those consumers are individuals universities or government agencies we all share the blame. However I feel that the more money used to purchase a product that is inaccessible the more culpability when that product is inaccessible. I may not have a choice in what database my office uses but I do have a choice in the screen reader I use. I’m not completely blameless but I share the blame with much more important people than I’ll ever be.