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

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Tribal warfare

John’s Nice Idea

Long standing accessibility advocate John Foliot often refers to people working in the accessibility world as members of the Tribe – itinerant, dispersed and yet connected with some commonality of purpose. John has a very positive outlook and it is one that I admire; he advocates finding solutions rather than pointing out problems, being a fireman taking action to prevent fires rather than a policeman arresting villains…

I admire all of this and subscribe wholeheartedly to this approach.

But it is not reflective of the reality in which we currently live and work.

What we actually have is a load of different tribes

Rather than harmony we have tribal warfare.

Tribes at warLet me give some context to my comments:

I recently attended a meeting of the eAccessibility forum at the Department for Culture Media And Sport (DCMS). It was intended as an opportunity to contribute to future legislation and policy to further digital inclusion for people with disabilities.

The session to explore the challenges and opportunities for accessibility presented by the rapidly changing technology landscape and to share ideas and potential solutions quickly fell apart.

One of the keynote speakers was harangued for being too personal despite advocating a broad brush pan disability approach.  She was advocating a rational, realistic and inclusive approach to the issues at hand.

The first person to stand up and criticise professed to have broadly the same aims as the speaker but attacked all the same only to get a smattering of applause.

For nearly two hours most of what I saw was people pushing their own personal agendas, complaining about this or that failing. Bemoaning that access was not 100% perfect. Wilfully misunderstanding and dismissing or ignoring each other.

It was like listening to a room full of broken records. The voices of the rational and reasonable (yes there were some there) drowned out in the clamouring.

Fragments of broken records

What happened to the concept of doing things for the greater good?

Or contributing for the benefit of all?

There was a fundamental lack of respect in the room which saddened me. Not from everyone but from enough to make the meeting unworkable as a useful forum.

Instead of thinking about the digital landscape in 5, 10 and 20 years time and what benefit we might bring to all people were fixated with their pet topics or asking for the impossible.

The one good idea of the whole event was tax breaks for accessibility.

This has some potential as a carrot to encourage businesses to do more.  We have the legislative sticks but businesses always look at the bottom line and incentives can and do make a difference.

He Who Shouts Loudest

After the event I sat mulling things over as to why people had behaved in such a way.  It occurred to me that this behaviour was not natural but had been adopted and learned.

Man with a megaphone

Advocates from disability groups had seen people have a measure of success by being vocal and forceful. So they assumed that this was the most effective approach to break down the barricades.

What this approach fails to recognise is that the war is over.

There may still be a lot to do but there is legislation in place and we were sitting in a government building being consulted and this is how people behaved…

It is no wonder legislators and companies shy away from us if we behave like terrorists.  Even the IRA recognised that the best way forward was to negotiate and compromise. Now one of their former number is the Second Minister in Northern Ireland.  They may not have everything they want yet and they may never but working peacefully and collaboratively has achieved more than all of the bombing.

What works for one group of users may not for another, the needs of businesses to pay their owners and staff and governments to run their countries mean that there will be no accessibility promised land.

100% accessibility of 100% of the web and Media for 100% of all the disability groups is a pipe dream but…

We can still make things a lot better

This is why we need to lay down the megaphones we use as weapons and start thinking about a pragmatic inclusive approach to technology and accessibility.  Think about what the challenges are for business and align with them to achieve far more for a wider group of people than ever before.

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.

Mobile Money It’s not Just Tomi Ahonen Who Says it’s Perfect

Last week I went to a fantastic conference on mobile run by the University of Oxford.

Co-hosts for the day were Ajit Jaokar and Tomi Ahonen.

There were tonnes of great speakers including Peter Paul Koch who runs Quirks Mode – talking about the importance of having good relations with webdevelopers.

Not only did we hear about all sorts of fantastic mobile apps, smart cities of the near future and how we might use white-space spectrum to enable smart devices but one of the recurring themes was how your mobile phone will soon replace your wallet.

Mobile money is not just convenient for you it is potentially very exciting for banks, marketers and all sorts of other entrepreneurial people.  Currently there is a mad dash to see who will own this space with Google Wallet being one of the prime contenders.

Connecting your identity with your wallet and knowing your location will allow companies to accurately target you with personalised offers that really will consign Groupon to the spam bin. Dave Birch went even further to say that beyond Mobile Money identity is the next commodity.

Highlight of the day and was Tomi enthusing about his favourite subject. Here is the video sorry there is only 9 1/2 minutes but that was all i could take in one go on my phone.

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!”

The Mobile Platform Race – Info-graphic

I came across this info-graphic and since Blue Via were happy to share could not resist putting it on my blog.

The Mobile Platform Race

Obviously the last couple of weeks have been momentous in the mobile industry with Google’s purchase of Motorola Mobility and HP’s announcement that they are abandoning Web OS and in fact the hardware business altogether.

Times are changing rapidly in mobile. Whilst we may not feel entirely comfortable with the concentration of power in the industry into the hands of a few Mega Corporations it was always going to end this way with a handful of platforms reaching the end of the race.

From a consumer point of view this is both a good and bad thing, there is a less wide ranging choice as the number of platforms narrows and some may argue that this stifles innovation.

However I welcome the idea of a period of greater stability when we know which platforms are worth developing on.  This should actually make it easier and safer to develop innovative products and services so long as the Mega Corporations that control the platforms don’t get too greedy and lock stuff down and over tax the innovators for selling apps in their stores.

Less fragmentation is also a good thing for interoperability which is highly important if we are to achieve greater inclusion for the people unable to access technology and information currently.