Department: Job Accommodations
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?
Since Microsoft Windows entered the software market, blind and visually impaired computer users have been gravely concerned about the accessibility of an operating system that uses graphics instead of text to convey information. Even the newest and best Windows screen readers are unable to function as reliably as their text- based counterparts. Without going into technical details, Windows does not work well with screen readers, and the problems are inconsistent and sometimes unpredictable. This state of affairs has led to lost job opportunities, and in some cases lost jobs altogether. If workers who are blind are to prosper in the workplace, significant changes must be made to the Windows operating system. Windows must be made more compatible with assistive technology, particularly with screen readers that cannot obtain sufficient information from the operating system to function reliably.
Over the past several years, several Windows-based screen readers have been developed and marketed. This first generation of Windows-based screen readers represent one of the most heroic feats of software engineering to date. Unfortunately, Windows itself lacks internal hooks to enable speech, Braille, and enlargement packages, forcing adaptive software developers to spend hundreds of hours extracting simple information from the tangle of data. In the DOS world, obtaining this information was much easier because of the 80 by 25 character text buffer. No such buffer exists for Windows, but that may be changing for the better.
Recently, several national and state disability organizations came together to inform Microsoft of the problems Windows is creating for the disabled community. The Massachusetts Commission For The Blind, the Massachusetts Assistive Technology Partnership, National Council On Disability, and various consumer organizations, banded together to demonstrate the incompatibility of Windows 3.1 with screen reader software to other state agencies responsible for purchasing and management information systems. Our thesis is that Windows was not accessible, and that state agencies were at risk of breaking the law by purchasing it for use within state government. The law in question here is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that basically states that office automation equipment must be accessible to persons with disabilities. The good news out of all this is that it convinced Microsoft to come to the bargaining table. After lengthy negotiations with the software giant, Microsoft has agreed to make Windows '95 more accessible across- the-board, and to work specifically on issues relating to screen reader access in general. The following is a brief outline of the changes Microsoft will make in the soon to be released Windows '95.
NEW ACCESS FEATURES
Microsoft has agreed to a fairly long list of changes to be made to the operating system, plus other changes that will make their documentation more immediately accessible. Here is a brief outline of most of these changes.
Microsoft will contract with Recording For The Blind to provide accessible manuals and documentation. This will allow blind and print disabled persons to receive manuals and software documentation much more quickly. This agreement extends to books and manuals printed by Microsoft Press.
The Windows Access Pack, formerly an add-on product, will now be available out of box with Windows '95. The Access Pack will be made part of the Control Panel for Windows '95, and will not have to be ordered separately. The new Access Pack for '95 will be expanded and standardized. The pack includes features for hearing and motor impaired computer users. Future plans are to expand the Access Pack with new features, such as a possible screen magnifier.
Microsoft will involve disabled computer users, and adaptive vendors, in their reliability testing projects. Whenever a new program is written, disabled users will have the opportunity to test it out with their adaptive equipment.
New staff are being hired at Microsoft to work on the adaptive effort. Chuck Opperman, formerly with Henter Joyce, is currently leading a programming team. Staff positions are currently available.
Microsoft has purchased the Henter Joyce off-screen-model to enable future screen reader development. An OSM is a critical part of a Windows screen reader. having a built-in OSM will make it easier to write future screen readers.
Microsoft is also publishing enhanced guidelines for their independent software developers. These guidelines describe how to write more accessible applications. Unfortunately, Microsoft has not yet agreed to withhold their logo for programs that do not measure up to this unenforced accessibility standard. But Microsoft has agreed to expand their relations with screen reader developers and developers of mainstream software to iron out bugs and incompatibilities.
Getting help may be easier with Windows '95. Microsoft is integrating all help facilities in Windows into a single help system. This will allow users to get help anywhere in the program, and the newly implemented access features will also contain links in the help text.
Users with low vision or who need screen customization will find '95 more accessible. All screen attributes can be set by the user. This includes the size of characters and icons, as well as the contrast level. This will make it easy for Microsoft to develop these features into a full-blown screen magnification package. The mouse pointer will be changeable by the user, making it easier to see for many applications. This will prove useful for users with vision impairments using screen enlargement. It could also prove useful for other disabilities.
A user name and password system will be implemented in '95 to assist with access and mainstream customization. All access features can be attached to a specific user name, allowing users to customize the system to their liking. When a new user logs onto the system, they simply type their name to activate any or all desired access features. This will allow multiple users to share the same system, while each user will have the ability to customize it according to their own needs.
Windows '95 may prove easier for adaptive vendors to write applications under if Microsoft increases support to this community of developers. Vendors of assistive technology will receive free beta and pre-release software from Microsoft in order to get a jump on creating new assistive applications. This will make it easier and faster for the adaptive vendor community to roll out new products. Many vendors are now porting their Windows 3.x screen readers over to '95. It is expected that several screen readers will ship at the same time Windows '95 is available.
Microsoft is preparing a catalog of assistive technology to aid consumers in locating adaptive hardware and software products. This catalog should be useful for locating Windows based assistive hardware and software. It is expected to be slim on non-Windows adaptive products. Microsoft is also preparing a document on the many different ways to customize Windows '95.
According to Microsoft, Windows '95 is expected to be released late this summer or in early fall. Not all access features are expected to be in place at that time, but Microsoft will ship quarterly "tune up kits" to allow users to add new features as they roll off the assembly line.
Microsoft has also established an electronic mail address on the Internet for people who want to ask questions about Microsoft access products. This is not for general questions about adaptive technology. Users can write to firstname.lastname@example.org
TRUST BUT VERIFY
I can honestly say that I am impressed with what Microsoft is claiming to accomplish. If they are successful, it will result in a more accessible environment for users with disabilities. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of fear and mistrust in the disabled community. Only time will tell. I am confident that if the disabled community continues a vigorous dialogue with Microsoft we will all have a more accessible workplace in the future. I encourage you to write Microsoft and express your thoughts, and offer encouragement and suggestions. This is more than about the right to use a computer; it is about the right to access information. In the modern world, access to information is the key to success and employment. We should all work to make information widely available and easier to access. We should create a world where all can share information, a world where abilities rather than disabilities are the motivating factor.
Joseph J. Lazzaro is director of the Adaptive Technology Program, Massachusetts Commission For The Blind in boston. He is also a freelance writer, with numerous publications on assistive technology.