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Transforming Lives

11th July 2007 • Dave

Hope everyone out there in Internet land is doing well? A few of you have asked why I have not blogged here in a while. Well I guess I have been busy trying to prove the theory that if you have a life you have no time for blogging! So guess my life is on hold for a few minutes while I quickly post something here.

June was pretty manic with lots going on at work. Some of which I can talk about, some of which I cannot. Dolphin’s screen reader for Windows Mobile Smartphones, Smart Hal, seems to be doing very well with plenty of interest from many quarters. Thank you all. During the final week in June I went to London as part of Dolphin’s participation in Transforming Lives, an event hosted by Microsoft in Westminster. As well as presenting Smart Hal to the great and the good including Anne McGuire, Minister for Disabled People, for part of the day I sat on a panel which explored where we are and where we are heading with assistive technology.

During the Transforming Lives debate, there was some criticism from a leading blindness charity here in the UK to the effect that the Windows environment accessed with screen reader software means that blind users are restricted to consuming and processing information thus relegating blind people to the less affluent end of the economic spectrum. As a screen reader user I take issue with this position which does not seem entirely logical in the context of assistive technology and the information age. So, eh hem, needless to say yours truly chimed in to challenge this gloomy prognosis.

It is true to say many blind people in a wide range of fields, requiring computer access or not, are more likely to be denied the economic opportunities available to sighted peers. It is also true to say that Microsoft Windows the operating system running the majority of modern computers has very limited screen access software built-in. Moreover, comprehensive and powerful screen reading software is absolutely essential in order that a blind person can make effective use of a Windows PC and to get on in an increasing number of careers requiring basic levels of computer literacy. However, the relationship between Microsoft and a rich ecosystem of assistive technology manufacturers actually works to break down rather than perpetuate economic inequality between blind and sighted people by delivering highly effective and targeted products which often meet and in many cases exceed the needs of blind computer users. The screen reader industry is small and the products are often not perfect. However, compared with twelve to fifteen years ago when the received wisdom seemed to be that access to Windows and the web were not really viable propositions for a blind person, in reality we have come a very long way.

Microsoft Windows enables assistive technology developers to utilise a range of frameworks and techniques enabling specialist targeted tightly-focused screen reading and screen magnification solutions to be created for use by people who are blind or partially sighted. Screen reader developer techniques made possible by Windows include but are not limited to: API hooking, MSAA, UI Automation, Document Object Models, Video Chaining, Mirror Drivers, etc. While some of these techniques have better support than others, and while some of these approaches may require a higher degree of creativity amongst developers than others. The practical upshot is that Windows users can choose from any one of half a dozen free and premium highly effective customisable screen readers providing comprehensive Braille and speech output for a vast array of applications used in a wide variety of professional and domestic scenarios.

Many transactions which previously relied on having access to sighted assistance or a transcription service can now, with appropriate technology and training, be successfully completed independently by someone who is blind at the same time as sighted peers without additional cost or reliance on a sighted intermediary. Moreover, this independence can enhance one’s confidence privacy and dignity potentially reducing physical barriers to education and employment.

Absolutely greater accessibility and usability in Windows can potentially improve the experience for everyone, not just those who traditionally have been disabled by inaccessible interfaces. However, the past decade has shown that by working in partnership with assistive technology specialists who have the requisite experience and expertise from working directly with users Microsoft are stimulating an environment where tailored solutions specifically designed to meet the needs of otherwise disabled users can flurrish.

The first tenant of universal design is to recognise the diversity amongst users. Can an operating system developer, even one as omnipotent as Microsoft, realistically continue to support the broad range of specialist hardware such as Braille displays and speech synthesisers used by blind people, accommodate the differences and preferences amongst screen reader users, continually release assistive technology updates to keep pace with new applications and emerging web trends, as well as provide appropriate levels of training and support to educate users relying on speech and Braille output?

To me as an assistive technology user, at least for now it seems appropriate that Microsoft should continue to promote innovation and choice in the assistive technology arena by providing a platform and infrastructure on which customisable assistive technology solutions are built in order to meet the needs of this diverse user community.

Consuming and processing information is a means by which an individual can acquire education, experience, skills which are ultimately marketable commodities. When funded along side appropriate training and as part of a balanced programme including Braille literacy, screen reading software products providing access to Windows applications and the internet can substancially enhance the education, independence and economic mobility of blind and partially sighted people by providing a gateway resulting in widening participation in a knowledge economy.

There is not a mortgage repayment goes buy when I do not think of those teachers in school who tought me how to read Braille, how to type and use a computer. Thank you Miss King, Mrs Duffy and Mr Irvine.

I certainly do not wish to underestimate the significant assistive technology challenges which lie ahead. There is a lot to do with Web 2.0, and in the area of set-top-boxes hardly anyone has even begun to scratch the surface. At the same time one should not underestimate the achievements to date and Microsoft are now more aware of the needs of assistive technology users more so than at any point in the past.

Categories: Disability, Opinion, Technology
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