Is Accessibility Middleware Really The Equivalent Of Snake Oil?

Sometimes the Internet is likened to the Wild West, it contains exciting unexplored territory, people have freedom to do all kinds of things and rules are not always rigorously applied.

A cowboy on his horse overlooking a valley in Utah

Photo Credit Mark Gunn

One area where this laissez-faire attitude has significant impact is web accessibility.

The impact of poorly written code and technology implemented without adherence to accessibility standards makes it difficult or impossible for users of assistive technology to make use of many of the things that the Internet has to offer.

This is hardly a new problem, web accessibility guidelines have been around for a long time and are well established (WCAG 2.0 is now an ISO standard). There are a multitude of reasons this (some might say excuses); either people are not aware or do not care about standards or are using tools or CMS/publishing platforms that make it impossible to deliver an accessible website or product.

Accessibility is broken for many people despite a lot of hard work.

Broken pane of glass

Photo credit  Jef Poskanzer

Given the explosion in user generated content on the Internet, this problem is not going away any time soon. So what is the best way to enable people to access services and information online when much of the content and the frameworks are not fully accessible?

How can we fix this thing?

There have been a number of articles written recently discussing the pros and cons of using accessibility add-ons or overlays to add features or fix inaccessible code.

Firstly there was Adrian Roselli’s post Be Wary of Add-on Accessibility” followed by Debra Ruh’s article on accessibility overlays in the Huffington Post and then a Karl Groves post in response  with Adrian commenting on both articles in an update of his original post.

Add-On Accessibility

The current state of web & intranet accessibility is poor and the tools that were discussed in Debra’s article were created in response to a general lack of access.

There are multiple different ways of describing add-on accessibility, middleware or overlays:

The first approach

The “separate but equal approach” of creating a second website accessible to assistive technology users. Like Adrian I am surprised that the 21st-century this is still happening given that creating a second site doubles the workload and usually delivers nothing like an equal experience.

The second approach

Provide embedded assistive technology. I have historically been very sceptical of this approach because if you really need assistive technology in order to use a product or service on the web you are going to need it in order to get to the website in the first place.

Embedding assistive technology into your website is like creating an island of accessibility in a sea of inaccessibility.

Island_near_Fiji

A Desert Island Near Fiji (Source Wikimedia Commons)

Despite this, my line on embedded assistive technology has softened somewhat as products have become available that don’t interfere with the assistive technology that many people with disabilities will have on their own computers.

In limited use cases these tools may have functionality that people may have therefore who am I to say not to use them if they do not break web accessibility guidelines.

The third approach – Cures what ails you?

The issue that has been most hotly debated has been over the concept of products aimed at dynamically repairing accessibility issues in websites whilst leaving the underlying code untouched.

Wormer's Famous Rattlesnake Oil advertisement

Source Wikimedia Commons

These middleware tools and their vendors appear to have a reputation in the accessibility industry as being the digital equivalent of snake oil.

Our Choices

Right First Time

Let me be clear from the outset my preference is for planning and delivering user experiences that are accessible from inception, either by making or buying products that meet standards and have been tested to meet people’s differing needs.

The reality is my preference does not match the day-to-day experience of your average browser user be that on the web at large or within companies intranets.

Fix at source / Fix the Source?

Most people are not building their own websites, they have little or no knowledge of the code that lies beneath. Despite what trends would have you believe most people won’t be learning code any time soon, if ever. They will also not have a clue about accessibility standards, that is a fact of life and it’s not going to change any day soon.

If you thought the internet was inaccessible…

Just wait until you get to look at nine out of ten large companies’ intranets. The tools that are used by organisations for many of their core intranet and business functions, portals and ticketing systems are not the sort of thing that can be easily thrown together.

No Entry Sign

Source Wikimedia Commons

They are usually made by big enterprise software companies and most IT departments attempt to deploy as close to out of the box as possible. Despite that there is a complex interplay of hundreds of dependencies; company IT and Security policies and interdependency with other parts of the company ecosystem including legacy IT.  Unfortunately they are usually not paragons of virtue when it comes to inclusive design.

An oft overlooked point is that companies that implement these systems often do not own the source code they are reliant on the vendors.  Once they’ve signed on the dotted line most of their power to influence that vendor evaporates.

Enterprise IT is a complex and often beauraucratic beast projects cost many millions and run for months and years.

Much as we may want to tear it up and start again…

Sometimes you have to admit that even if you do get the go ahead to fix at source the users may not see the benefit for months or even years.

Given the long lead times and complexity of fixing things in corporate environments I can see how middleware that solves the user access issues is attractive and even a valid choice in certain scenarios.

The vendors of these tools should be upfront about the capabilities of their tools and also the level of knowledge, training & intervention required to set them up so that the problems for users are resolved.

Equally people looking to purchase these tools should not expect a magic wand.

Middleware is not snake oil if:

  • It enables users access where they didn’t have it.
  • It expedites access reducing the glacial time-scales of mega-corporate IT.
  • It does not interfere with existing ATs.
  • Implimenting it helps create processes for handling accessibility issues better in future.

So why does it feel like the accessibility industry is circling the wagons?

Wagons in a circle

Photo Credit Don Graham

Partly I think it’s fear of change – people are used to solving a problem in a particular way.  That way is still valid for individual projects but I want to be open minded and embrace the idea that technology just might be better at solving the problem than we currently give it credit for.

I don’t think it’s because people’s income is threatened because there is plenty of broken stuff to keep everyone in the industry working for years to come.

Accept that we cannot fix accessibility piecemeal.

The greatest technology giants of our time know this and that is why they are looking at using their computational power to solve the problems of inaccessible content:

  • Facebook is experimenting with computer generated image descriptions. I don’t know about you but I don’t much feel like retrospectively writing alt text for the worlds face book feeds.
  • Nor do I fancy writing the transcripts to all of youtube’s content in order to produce captions – the 30 minutes per week that we do for #AXSChat is labour intensive enough as it is.  I welcome Youtube’s effort with auto-captions.  They are far from perfect but I do believe that their approach is the right one.

If technology genuinely removes barriers it’s OK in my book.


 

Why not join the #AXSChat conversations that Debra Ruh, Antonio Santos and I host every Tuesday on twitter or catch up with the video interviews that we’ve done with a wide range of people over the last year. www.axschat.com

Each Year I Spend A little Less Time At BETT

For the best part of a decade the coming of a new year meant only one thing work wise: the BETT trade show for education technology.

It was by far the most significant marketing event in the company’s year and you could be guaranteed to find all of the major players in assistive technologies gathered at the show. It marked an opportunity to catch up with industry colleagues, have meetings with people that you had been meaning to have since last BETT and a chance to gossip and size up the competition. Not only that but you would also be able to find all sorts of exciting gadgets and interesting ideas for making education more engaging and fun.

Or at least it used to be like that. Certainly during the last couple of years of working at iansyst Ltd we were questioning the value of spending such a large slice of our yearly budget on this one show. Building stands and coordinating marketing materials, personnel and the attendant travel and hotels all costs significant amounts of money. It is very difficult to track whether or not the investment in such trade shows is really worthwhile. But the Assistive Technology industry keeps coming back year after year.

This January was the second time that I had attended BETT as a visitor and not as an exhibitor. I had made two short visits the previous January to catch up with former colleagues and has a nose around to see what was new. The relief of not having to man the stand was palpable, I could freely wander around and do my business as I chose.

However this year I spent a total of 2 1/2 hours at the biggest education technology show in the world. In fact I probably spent half an hour too long.

Why is that?

Aside from catching up with colleagues there was very little innovation on show. Yes there were new versions of most of the familiar assistive technology software, yes Microsoft and all the big technology players had flashy stands and Google was notable for the increased presence but there was very little of interest.

Most of my colleagues were too flustered or tired to be able to have a sensible conversation, and finding somewhere comfortable to have that conversation was nigh on impossible. The real innovation is elsewhere, if you want to understand what really ignites interest in young learners and what the really important technology trends are you should not be going to BETT.

Why not check out events that really focus on innovation and engagement in the technologies that will be shaping our lives in the coming decades? Next year I have resolved not to go to BETT and spend the time at more focused events like Learning without Frontiers and the fantastic mobile conference run every November by Tomi Ahonen and Ajit Joakar.

The BETT show like the CES show in America has seen its glory days in years gone by, whilst these shows are still very large they are growing less significant year by year. CES used to be the most important trade show in the electronics world every year, it has been supplanted by Mobile World Congress. Everything is mobile, everything is personal and these old shows don’t reflect that.

Pratik’s Kindle Fire Sale

What prompted me to write this post?

Well I read Pratik Patel’s very angry blog post about the lack of accessibility on the new Amazon Kindle Fire. Boy was he mad! He really tore into Amazon.

amazon kindle fire tablet

Is such anger justified?

To an outsider this level of anger may seem grossly disproportionate. I too am very disappointed that the new flagship Amazon device has not improved in terms of accessibility, but I am more saddened than angry that it is an opportunity missed.

However, there is a long and inglorious history when it comes to Amazon and the accessibility of the Kindle. It is a history full of missed opportunities, U-turns and vested interests. That goes some way to explaining the fury expressed by Pratik on his blog.

Potted history

Previous versions of the Kindle have included the ability to use text-to-speech to read books on the device. For people with print disabilities such as visual impairment and dyslexia this offered up the prospect of access to a library of books that they could previously only have dreamed of.

Unfortunately the number of books actually available for use with text-to-speech was severely curtailed by pressure from the Author’s Guild who claimed that text-to-speech would impact on their billion-dollar sales of audio books.
Authors can now choose to have the text-to-speech disabled on their works.

This is a crying shame.

The Guardian’s Books Blog pointed out that:

“Clearly the Authors Guild wants to take a firm position early about the emerging technology, but this campaign seems misguided. If it weren’t, one might expect the first people to side with the Authors Guild to be Amazon, since, as well as manufacturing the Kindle, the company owns Audible, a download site which accounts for 95% of the on-line audio-book market.”

Previous versions of the Kindle were not fully fledged tablets in the way that the Kindle Fire is. The voice aided navigation whilst clunky was manageable with the limited feature set. Users with print disabilities could just about use the device albeit with a restricted range of books.

Accessibility of previous Kindle’s

There is a well balanced review of Kindle accessibility by Serotalk which lists the steps they would like to see to make the product more accessible. These included:

  • Ability to turn on Voice Guide independently.
  • Implementation of universal text-to-speech setting, eliminating the need to turn on text-to-speech for each piece of content.
  • Ability to navigate and select text within a book.
  • Ability to highlight or make notes on specific passages in a book.
  • Ability to browse the Kindle store and purchase items directly from the device.

The full article is on the Serotalk website.

This limited accessibility was not enough to prevent trials of Kindles in US universities being stopped.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison and Syracuse University were two establishments running these pilot programs which recently decided not to adopt the device until its features are improved, including access to visually impaired students.

If previous versions were not fully accessible what’s to get upset about when there is effectively no change?

Now that Amazon has released a fully fledged tablet a higher percentage the features on the device are completely inaccessible.

This is a regrettable and retrograde step.

Reasons for the lack of accessibility?

People could argue that because the Kindle Fire is using a version of Android which in itself is not totally accessible that it could be excused.

Others may say that given the huge market pressures to deliver a device in time for the gift giving season that there simply was not time to implement accessibility.

These are really just excuses.

Amazon has completely customised the version of android that the Kindle Fire runs on.

It could have included accessibility in the design specs and the company certainly has the capabilities and the money to make this work.

As I have outlined in previous posts the earlier you plan to make the product accessible the easier and less expensive it is to achieve.

Arguments about not having enough time or resources will not wash either as they had enough time to develop the “silk” browser.
Perhaps I will feel more forgiving is Amazon were to make a future commitment to accessibility and produce a roadmap, I will wait but I certainly won’t hold my breath.

The fire sale idea.

Firesale logoWhilst I am not totally aligned with the tone and anger in Pratik’s blog I was very interested by the idea he put forward to register the disability community’s concerns by ordering and then cancelling the Kindle Fire and giving the reason for cancelling the order as the lack of accessibility.  He has created a hashtag on twitter:  #firesale

I’m very keen to see accessibility features such as text-to-speech and speech recognition included in mainstream products.

The only way that major manufacturers and corporations will start to take notice is if they can see something in it for them.To demonstrate that there is a viable market for mainstream products designed with inclusion in mind.

Or in this case that they are losing potential sales.

For a major company like Amazon to sit up and take notice it will require very significant numbers of people to participate.

That will include people from outside of the disability and accessibility world.

To persuade Joe public to get involved the campaign must appear as reasonable to them. It needs to persuade them that this is something worth doing and no-one is not going to do that by shouting.

Such a campaign needs to be compelling, measured in tone and charismatic.

I really like Pratik’s idea but if it is to succeed he will need to express himself in a more measured way now that he has vented his spleen.

Paradigm Shift Futher Discussions

My post “inclusivity requires a paradigm shift” gathered quite a lot of comments and we had some nice discussions on Linkedin groups.  Rather than go round the houses I have collated the discussions here.

Phill Jenkins

“I think GPII.net has some potential, I just wonder what the AT vendors are saying and how the policy makers and grant funders are getting involved?”

Neil Milliken

“Hi Phill, There is at least one AT vendor involved (TextHelp). Hopefully more will get involved as well as people like the guys behind NVDA and other open-source ATs. There is grant funding from the European Union for the Cloud For All elements so it has some momentum – it still needs more and that momentum must be sustained if we are to achieve something great”

Jim Tobias

“Good question, Phill. I think there are already cloud-based AT vendors, and more will join them. Aside from the continuing need for alternative input (like large key keyboards) and output (like Braille printing), the cloud emphasizes the advantages of software solutions over hardware ones. But why should cloud-curious AT vendors adopt GPII as a strategy? The advantages of GPII as a cloud strategy for AT vendors are: easier global marketing, serving diverging platforms (desktop, mobile, kiosks, POS terminals, etc…) without having to develop separate products, and assistance with the enterprise customer (employer, school district, etc., who may want a package of solutions rather than buying a screen reader from vendor X, a communication aid from Vendor Y, and captioning services from vendor Z).”

L. E. Storck

“Keep talking about this here when you have time :-); where are the women involved?”

Phill Jenkins

“Jim and Neil, I think the business model is what really needs to be tested and proven as sustainable. GPII needs vendors X, Y, and Z to really buy in while assuring the end users that their needs will be met. The old business model of a vendor developing, selling AND SERVICING the end user is what made the AT industry. All the advantages of GPii will only succeed when the end users needs are really met. Marketing messages saying it will “just work” are not enough to meet the previous “services” expectations that came along with Neil’s so called “niche” expensive AT solutions. For example, as expensive and one-off as they may have been, custom JAWS scripts did keep a person working and productive – while complaining to a platform owner may take months and an upgrade release to wait for a fix.”

Jim Tobias

“Phill, I absolutely agree — GPII has to stay out of the way of the AT vendors and their customers, because that’s the relationship that makes everything work. I think of it like mall management: provide the building, spaces, escalators, parking, maps, etc., and let the merchants, large and small, do their thing. There’s one area where GPII itself could be of value, and that’s free-and-open-source-software. We’ve all seen dozens of worthy AT projects come and go because they weren’t successfully commercialized or otherwise made sustainable. Users often wound up in a dead end. GPII could do something about that.”

Neil Milliken

“I’m really pleased to have started off some discussion.

I’ll try and address the points made by everyone.

L.E. I cannot really answer why there are not more women involved, in this discussion, AT and indeed IT in general. I know a number of fantastic female professionals in the AT and accessibility field but they are significantly outnumbered. I am open to anyone who wants to make a positive contribution.

Jim & Phill,

I don’t believe that it is the intention of GPII to get in the way of AT vendors and their customers, rather the opposite. The whole rationale for GPII is to provide a mechanism for making AT available to more people on more devices. Gregg Vanderheiden talks about it as being like a transport network which the ATs and the customers use to get where they need to be. The network is not biased towards one type of car, bike or bus etc.

Phill,

With regards to JAWS scripting I understand your argument and the pragmatic results that it brings. The cost of purchasing the license for JAWS is just the tip of the ice-berg. However, I have spent more on JAWS scripting than I have on my house. Scripting a solution to a problem locks you into a cycle of continuous updates to the scripts that do not benefit everyone. It also means that the real culprit – ie the manufacturer of the offending software or the website owner is oblivious to the problems with their product and or service.

Sometime scripts are necessary but I think that Freedom Scientific and their Partners, should be submitting every script created for the potential further development of the product.

I am sure that currently there are many duplications of the scripting work because of the way that scripting does not get back into the product and is effectively outsourced.

Jim – with regards to AT vendors having a direct relationship with their customers I don’t believe that this is necessarily so outside of the vendor’s home nation. Outside of the US lot of AT is supplied by third parties who have no control of the product. Attend a Nuance Dragon Partner Meeting in the UK and you will feel the frustration.

Jim – I really do hope that the GPII will open up the opportunities for more low and no cost options for people. I know from experience that you can create a great product that wins awards but still dies a death because of price and market constraints.”

Martyn Cooper

“I agree with your point and have been making similar headline claims in my own work for decades. However handle with care. The population of people with disabilities is as diverse as any other large sample of the total human population. There is *never* just one thing you can do that makes your product/service accessible to all different people with disabilities. You need to adopt a culture that seeks to address diversity and moves away from one size fits all. If you do this with the motivation of meeting the needs of disabled people you are likely to meet the wide range of users needs and requirements in the general population too!”

Nancy Hays
“Good point, Martyn. I was thinking the same things while reading the article. All of us have different contexts in which services designed for people with disabilities of all different kinds would benefit us not because of our personal diversity, exactly, but because of our diverse situations at any moment. A simple example would be speech-to-text services that could convert a spoken message to a text message to avoid “texting while walking” (driving clearly being too dangerous to consider). The potential ways to leverage accessibility technologies for the wider public might persuade companies to invest in the effort.”

Neil Milliken

“Hi Martyn and Nancy,Thanks for the comments.Martyn I agree that amongst that huge group there are wide variances of need. Absolutely agree when you say that there will never be a one size fits all approach that works. But that is why the GPII is so interesting, it gives the individual flexibility to choose what is right for them and works for them and tries to match it with mainstream technology.This actually fits very well with the trend in business for “mass customisation” where there are base components that a user can choose to make something pretty unique to them. You see this in the auto industry where people can choose from a range of different colours, accessories trims etc.. For any one model of car there may be anything like 500 variations.Nancy – I have been saying for a decade now that my favourite assistive technologies for helping me with my dyslexia are Microsoft Outlook which helps me organise myself and Dragon Naturally Speaking – both were designed and marketed as productivity tools.It is only 10 years later that speech recognition is becoming mainstream and being included on your mobile phone as standard!”

Inclusivity Requires A Paradigm Shift

1 Billion plus people is not a niche market.

According to the World Health Organisation:

One in seven of the world’s population has some kind of disability.

Niche Market

A billion is obviously an extremely large number of individuals, that have needs to be met.

In the Western world the populations are ageing, improvements in healthcare are helping people live longer – this means that the number of people who require assistance coping with age related conditions is only going to grow.

There are likely to be ever increasing numbers of people with poor vision, hearing loss, limited mobility and cognitive difficulties and we need to ensure that they are not excluded.

This is what is sometimes referred to as a Megatrend. Megatrends are great forces in societal development that will affect all areas – state, market and civil society – for many years to come.

Another Megatrend is the rapid growth and increased mobility of populations.

This will put a strain on all kinds of resources but from an inclusion point of view there is great deal of cross over with the needs of the disability community.

Economic migrants and refugees from war and famine will often face language barriers to inclusion in their new countries.

Couple this with the need to educate and raise literacy levels in the general population as a whole and you have a problem that is just too big for governments to ignore.

Population-Explosion

Why then is there a belief that it is something that is small scale?

Perhaps the answer to this is because we are not focusing on the commonality of needs and trying to address each individual problem separately:

For example we frequently deal separately with the needs of people with dyslexia to the needs of people with poor literacy or those who face a language barrier when accessing technology and information, and separately again when addressing the needs of people with limited or no vision.

Whilst the way that these groups will interact with technology will be different the underlying technologies that are useful to them are often quite similar.

We have allowed special interest groups who are no doubt well-intentioned, to distort and fragment our understanding of the problem and where we often have a case where only those that shout loudest get their needs served.

Some disability advocacy groups are better organised and better funded than others:

Organisations such as the Action On Hearing Loss (formerly the RNID), NFB (National Federation of the Blind) in the US and RNIB have been very effective at lobbying and raising awareness – other organisations that represent the needs of people with Cognitive Difficulties such as Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, ADD, Aspergers etc. have historically been far less effective.

We have in effect created our own artificial niches.

This has created confusion and led to companies and governments addressing some issues to the detriment of others:

An example of this is VoiceOver on the iPhone, I think that what Apple has done for people with vision impairments is fantastic; they have embedded accessibility for blind people deep into the operating system.

  • But this is not something we can really call inclusive.
  • One group of people is no less deserving than another of these tools.

As a person with dyslexia I don’t use Voice Over on the iPhone because it turns off most of the stuff I want; including the normal touch screen interface with standard gestures.

It would not have taken much for Apple to give users greater control over the accessibility features rather than dictating preferences.

By giving the user greater configurability they would have immediately made their phones accessible to a much wider group of people who are currently excluded.

Why are more big companies not queuing up to get a slice of this huge market?

One reason may be the fact that this issues appear complex and they are not sure where to start. 
It is easier for them to focus on doing the stuff that they know and understand.

Another has to be fragmentation and the niche behaviour of the accessibility industry.

A fragmented market is not an attractive one to the big players, when we present and represent the needs of each disability separately we are making it less likely that business will address the issue.

I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about Accessibility and Assistive Technology and this has prompted me to have lengthy conversations with a number of good people like Gregg Vanderheiden at the Trace Center, Jonathan Hassell former Head of Accessibility for the BBC and Sandi Wassmer of Copious who recently shared her Ten Principles of Inclusive Web Design.

These conversations highlighted one key point for me:

We cannot afford to try and solve these problems one at a time.

Technology is moving faster than ever.

The pace of development and intensity of competition has led to fragmentation.

The way we consume information is changing, the growth of smartphones is explosive we should not confine our efforts to the desktop computer:

  • We are moving rapidly towards an “internet of things” where many kinds of devices are connected and consume and generate information.
  • There are over a Billion computers in the world but 5 Billion people own a mobile phone.
  • Yet for the most part mobiles are horribly inaccessible in themselves and accessing information on the web via a mobile is clunky at best.
  • Addressing inclusion one website at a time or one application at a time is a thankless task and ultimately a losing game.

The proliferation of data is enormous and will continue to accelerate:

  • There has been an explosion of User Generated Content.
  • More and more stuff is published by amateurs who are not web designers and have no knowledge of code or how to create accessible content.
  • Citizen journalism, social media and blogging are all adding to the weight of data out there and the trend is for this to accelerate as more and more people post stuff online from their mobiles.
  • Up until now great deal of focus has been placed on making websites conform with W3C’s WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines).
  • This approach is having some qualified success for the online presence of Governments (National & Local), big companies and service providers.
  • But it is leaving the rest of the web untouched and inaccessible.

It seems to me that the key to ensuring greater inclusion is to make the Apps, compilers, social media tools, content management systems, and blogging tools produce more accessible content for the people who are using them without them having to think about it.

Let’s be realistic;

The average blogger or social media user has nothing against people with disabilities.

But their needs don’t spring to mind when they are posting something about the party they just went to or the football match they are watching.

To be honest I think that it is unreasonable to expect them to.

This is why initiatives like Fix the Web are commendable but in my opinion doomed to limited success at best.

Addressing web accessibility one website at a time is akin to recalling every car in the world and retrofitting an electric motor.

It is not going to happen.

Access to Assistive Technologies is key to inclusion.

But only 15% of those who need them have these tools!

So what are the main issues?

Affordability:

The mainstream AT products are too expensive putting them out of the reach of those that need them most:

  • People on low incomes, excluded from work because of their disability, or unable to find funding.
  • People in poorer countries where grant support is not available or scarce at best.

In the western world the provision of AT has been subsidised by governments – this is great for the citizens who get what they need to access information and have a fair chance of leading a meaningful life being able to participate in education and work.

However, it has also had the effect of protecting AT vendors from market forces that have driven down the price of technology in the mainstream.

The argument has always been that Assistive Technology is a niche market with small customer bases and high production costs, that the challenges faced in producing AT are somehow harder than the challenges faced by other companies developing new technology and that this justifies the prices charged for products like JAWS, Read & Write, Dragon or Kurzweil.

Certainly my previous experience of being involved in developing AT software was a mixed bag.

Some of the development work was tricky, but I doubt it was harder than for others.

One of the barriers to setting an affordable price to the consumer was the cost of licensing components such as the OCR and Text To Speech.

Because the product we were developing was AT the vendors charged us between seven and thirty times the price that they charged for the same components when they were included in games or other mainstream consumer software using the niche market, low volume argument.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you price a product designed to address the needs of people who are often in the poorer segment of society in the hundreds of pounds you are pretty much sure only to sell a handful.

Lack of innovation and interoperability.

The market is changing and AT vendors need to up their game.

Despite the high cost of much Assistive Technology, there has not been much in the way of innovation in the well-known AT products for a long time.

Yes each new version brings another feature that can be used to justify the update but there has been nothing groundbreaking for years now and many of these feature are just serving to make the software more cumbersome.

I really believe that given the high cost of AT that the vendors ought to do more to make their products flexible enough to work with emerging mainstream technologies.  They should not just cry foul and blame everyone else.  Both the developers of new technology platforms and AT vendors need to be working to make their products work with each other out of the box as far as possible.

For example I do not agree with the approach taken by Freedom Scientific which I have encountered when reporting incompatibilities with JAWS and other software:

The stock response seems to be “get one of our partners to script it for you”.

This approach means that the work to make JAWS work with other programs is expensive, disjointed and does not get included in the application itself to benefit other users.

This has parallels with the problems we experience with web accessibility.

AT is all to often platform dependant.

Mobile technology is driving innovation – companies like Google and Apple have made it relatively easy for people to develop applications for their mobile operating systems, even Microsoft is doing it.

Furthermore these companies have given small developers a route to market that they did not have before, via their Appstores.

This has led to the launch of a raft of reasonably priced Assistive Technologies on mobile platforms.

Currently these products are not of the complexity or breadth of some of the AT available on a PC or Mac but the pace of development is fast.

Very few AT vendors are doing stuff on mobile and this is to my mind a big mistake.

Freeware and Open Source AT?

There is a growing amount of Assistive Technology available these days that is available for free or at low-cost and much of it is open source and developed collaboratively.

A great example of this is the free screen reader NVDA.

Whilst this is a good thing there is risk attached to this approach – by relying on volunteers or being funded by charitable contributions the products risk being outstripped by the pace of technology development and becoming out of date, losing compatibility and interoperability.

I am not arguing that AT producers should make no money; everyone in business has a right to expect to be allowed earn money for their work.

I am arguing that by abandoning the niche mentality, dropping prices significantly and addressing the needs of the larger market they will help more people and make more money.

Desirability:

Sometimes an Assistive Technology will by the very nature of what it does need to look and feel different from mainstream technology but often it does not have to.

A colleague of mine who is blind told me about visiting a trade fair for the visually impaired where he was looking to find a new watch.

He left disappointed and empty-handed because in his words he was “looking for something a little less blind”.

I am fed up of seeing software that looks like it was written for Windows 95 and that costs the earth.

We can and should do better – anyone who tells you otherwise is either lazy or lying.

The same applies to Assistive hardware and gadgets.

Even if it was free I would not want to use lots of the AT on offer today unless I had to because it flags up the fact that I am different.

Who wants to cart about the IntelReader which looks like it has been made by Fischer Price when you could use the K-reader, Beyo Reader, or CapturaTalk on a modern mobile phone?

Be honest which would you rather use?

This?

Intel Reader - It's huge

Or something like this?

Capturatalk on a Standard SmartPhone

This?

Plextalk Daisy Player

Or something like this?

Apple's Ipad 2

Certainly when I speak to people I know who use Assistive Technology they want to use consumer products like everyone else.  I know that Sandi Wassmer was delighted by the fact that her iPad 2 which she uses with Apple’s inbuilt accessibility tools was the subject of gadget envy.

If we are to achieve inclusion the solution needs to be in the mainstream

We need to engage with the people developing tomorrows technology right now.

Believe that we can use mainstream technologies to meet a far greater number of our inclusion needs.

We need to demonstrate that building inclusivity into their devices, platforms and software is a necessary part of their product development cycle.

That by doing so they are opening themselves up to a bigger and more profitable market than they already have.

Manufacturers need to provide a mechanism or framework to give greater configurability to their end users and make it easy for AT developers to make their products work with mainstream products.

To date only a handful of hardware device manufacturers have developed products that have accessibility features built-in  – software is further ahead in this respect.

Middleware may hold some of the answers.

I am looking at a number of solutions that hold out the hope of making mainstream consumer devices work in a way that makes them far more inclusive.

Perhaps the most exciting thing that I have come across recently is the GPII (Global Public Inclusive Architecture), the brain child of Gregg Vanderheiden.

It is a hugely ambitious undertaking that is fraught with the risk of failure but given the currently broken state of inclusion I think it is well worth pursuing.

I will be getting involved and encourage anyone else that wants to make a more inclusive future to do so too.

Here’s a summary from the GPII Website

GPII is a software and service enhancement to our broadband infrastructure designed to:

  • allow users to invoke and use the access features they need anywhere, anytime, on any device
  • provide users with simple flexible ways (“wizards”) to determine which access solutions work best for them
  • lower the cost to develop new types of assistive technology and new built-in “extended usability” features by
  • providing rich development tools
  • allowing developers, researchers, and consumers to work together to create better solutions with less duplication of effort
  • providing common core modules and services that can be used to build both commercial AT and built-in access features
  • reduce the delay in affordable access to new mainstream technologies as they are released
  • increase the number and variety of developers and invigorating the field by
    • lowering the entry costs for new assistive technology developers
    • providing a low-cost mechanism for moving new ideas from research to the market
  • increase the number and types of different access solutions, providing a better match for more types of users
  • provide better solutions for low incidence disabilities and combinations of disabilities not served well today (e.g., cognitive impairments, deaf-blindness)
  • improve the interoperability between mainstream and assistive technologies
  • increase the market penetration for all assistive technologies by increasing awareness and extending opportunities to try and select products and services
  • provide a mechanism to create ‘ubiquitous’ accessibility to match the evolving ubiquitous technologies
  • lower the cost to governments, businesses, employers, and others who need to provide access to all they serve
  • make it easier (less expensive and more realistic) for libraries and other public access points to serve all patrons
  • provide these rich, robust tools to citizens of developing countries, affordably

If you have a spare 8 minutes why not watch the video.

Accessibility: Let’s put away the wrecking ball!

Levelling the playing field is a good thing

If you are reading this post you will probably think that accessibility is critically important.

You will know & understand the rationale behind it.

You will most likely either be in the accessibility “industry” or a user of Assistive Technology.

It is likely that you will be frustrated by the constant challenges that you face in accessing products and services or working with people to make their products and services accessible.

I know that in my job I face these challenges too on a daily basis.

Often it can feel that it is one step forwards and two steps back.  Just when you think that you have something that works, technology changes, legislation changes or management decide on a new direction and the baby gets thrown away with the bath water.

Baby thrown away with the bathwaterI work in a huge IT organisation and one of our major clients actually has adherence to their accessibility guidelines built into our contract so that any product or service we deliver to them must be accessible, not just websites anything that has a user interface.

So not only do I have the law on my side in my role I have the power to enforce compliance and if necessary stop multi million pound projects in their tracks if they cannot be used in conjunction with Assistive Technology.  I can almost hear some of you thinking he’s got it easy…

But despite making progress and working hard there is still much that concerns me about accessibility, both in my organisation and in the wider world.

So why does it still not work?

It is undoubtedly frustrating but I believe we need to take a step back and see how outsiders view accessibility.

Demolition in progress sign

I honestly believe that this picture represents how a lot of people in the IT industry view a meeting with the “accessibility guy”.  I’m not joking when I say project directors have run away from me with a fearful guilty glance over their shoulder.

In some cases they know that they’ve swept accessibility under the carpet or ignored it all together and that their project has a deadline they need to meet.  A meeting with the accessibility guy at this stage will delay their project upset the client (yes the same client that says they want everything accessible) and cost money.

Others are ignorant of their obligations so our first meeting can come as a nasty shock as the implications sink in for what implementing accessibility means for their project or service this late in the game.

Lets not turn accessibility discussions into a jousting match

Two Knoights Jousting

Karl Groves of Deque Systems posted on the need for a new approach to accessibility a subject first raised by Jared W Smith who talked of the need for a new accessibility game plan.  You can read Karl’s post on his blog.

I agree with most of what he said about how the accessibility community is viewed by web developers as whining zealots stopping them from implementing cool new ideas.

Accessibility has become a bit of a dirty word.

We are partly to blame.

We have felt the need to fight our corner and have fought tenaciously.

The problem is sometimes we shoot indiscriminately and do more harm than good.

We also frequently fight amongst ourselves.

We have developed a plethora of standards.

Whilst they are necessary there are possibly too many, they often conflict and sometimes they confuse the hell out of me let alone a lay person.

I have been working with and using Assistive Technology for over a decade and I know enough to know that there is always more to learn.  We need to have some sympathy for those who are willing to work with us and to provide them with practical ways and suggestions to work with these guidelines and just as importantly choose the appropriate ones.

Furthermore standards tend to lag behind technology developments so we spend far too much time in conferences arguing about the fine details whilst the world moves on.

We have launched class action lawsuits against major corporations and won.

Let me be clear that there is a place for legal action, it is sometime necessary as a weapon of last resort.

But class action lawsuits not only breed resentment they can also skew the view of what constitutes accessibility.  Large, well funded organisations such as the NFB can afford the lawyers more readily than other disability groups and this can lead to misconceptions, such as thinking that just because it works for one group or with one piece of Assistive Technology it is accessible.  Different people have different needs and they can and frequently do conflict.

We have bullied and cajoled people into accepting that people with disabilities should have access one website at a time.

But we can’t keep up with the volume of stuff that’s out there.

We cannot fix it all ourselves.

We need to find another way to achieve our goals

We need to stop fighting and start talking.

And not just amongst ourselves.

Stop telling people they are failing and talk to them about how we can work together to make better products for everyone.

Words like compliance, fail, class action, discrimination and legislation are turn-offs.

Talk in the language of business to the ones that own the big businesses

Go to the top and show the key people how they can make great products accessible and PROFITABLE.

Pile of Dallar bills

Demonstrate that the costs of doing this need not be excessive and can pay dividends in terms of usability, productivity, customer loyalty.

Present them with evidence that they can engage and delight their customers by working with us.

Graph showing how early implimentation of accessiblity pays off

Show them that they are missing out on an opportunity to engage with a large and growing customer base.

Give them facts and figures on the spending power and demographic trends around disability and ageing.

Credit card

This may not be easy but the pay off of engaging with top executives can be far greater as they can change the culture of their organisations.

Engage with thought leaders

As well as people from business we need to be engaging the people who are shaping our future, go outside of our cosy circle and get them interested in a two way conversation. The people who are building the next generation of technologies may not be aware of what they need to do to make their products accessible. We won’t know who they are but by engaging with thought leaders and getting their buy in we have a much better chance of influencing them.

We can also learn about what trends will be important and work with them to ensure inclusion.

Most people develop new technology with the intent of making our lives easier and better  so we should present the arguments that accessibility and Assistive Technology is just a natural extension of this.

We should not be afraid to appropriate new technologies to our needs.

Twitter is a great place for this kind of discussion.  It is a great back door to big corporations and busy people.

Accentuate the positive

We must demonstrate that accessible products can be great and fun products that everyone wants to use.

We need to be less “worthy” and more fun – make our products attractive to a wider audience, changing Accessible Twitter to “Easy Chirp” is one example of making an accessible product more attractive to a broad audience.

Before pointing out the bits that aren’t accessible on a website or in a product home in on the bits that are.

May your glass always be half full

Be prepared to compromise.

We are in this for the long haul and need to build relationships so being prepared to compromise on small issues is necessary.  If something is 80% accessible that is a great start so long as the remaining 20% doesn’t represent the core function of the product or website.

Sometimes we behave like accessibility is a religion, if that is the case I think we need to careful not to behave like the Spanish Inquisition.

Work to educate.

As Karl Groves mentioned people don’t often set out to deliberately make their products inaccessible it usually comes about through ignorance.

I am not a coder but I will and do provide code examples to those that do – my thanks as always go to those who generously provide this people like Yahoo Access and Dennis Lembree.

I also make sure that I bend over backwards to provide training and awareness sessions to all that ask for it.

We could do with making people more aware that they don’t have to comb through their code line by line, so lets give people the tools they need to build accessible products and websites, a lot of them are out there already.

Show them Assistive Technology – blow them away with how great it is. Most people I demonstrate to are amazed when they see products like JAWS and Dragon for the first time.  Demonstrate how some of it could make their lives easier too. Get them using it and you’ll have a convert to the cause. Even better they’ll have the awareness and the tools to implement accessibility themselves in future.

We also need to harmonise and cross reference standards as well as make them decipherable  – My colleague Klaus-Peter Wegge talked with me about creating a “cook book” with easy to follow recipes and tips.

Noticeably despite having input to many of the world standards on accessibility he tends not to use the word often preferring the terms Universal Design and Design for All.

Let’s embrace the wider world:

People embracing with a "free hugs" sign