Sunday, September 19, 2010

Speech as navigation

As readers may know, your humble Devil works as a product manager for a small web software and services company. One of the specialisms of this company—and thus, one of the concepts that I was introduced to when I joined—was that of Web Accessibility.

I had heard a wee bit about it in my freelancing days, but I had never paid much attention to it, but I am now reasonably expert in the various rules and guidelines (although, I must admit that, in my personal projects, I am not always entirely consistent in its application)—some glimpses of which can be seen, for those that are interested, in my critique of the Labour Party website last year.

I have worked with a couple of blind computer users—in organising our company's seminars and so forth—and they have used either JAWS or SuperNova screen-readers on Windows machines. There are a few free or cheap (or temporary) screenreaders out there, but nothing as high-powered.

The internet is a wonderful innovation, enabling the disabled to do things for themselves that they could only have done with assistance before. The addition of a screen-reader can set the blind free but many disabled people do not have a high income—and, tragically, screen-readers are expensive—SuperNova is nearly £1,000.

Given all of this, I really should have investigated Apple's built-in VoiceOver screen-reading software before: to be honest, however, I thought that it was a cheap, knock-down version that would never replace "proper" screen-readers. It appears that I was wrong.

Via Daring Fireball, I have come across a blog written by Austin Seraphin—who is blind—and who has just purchased his first new Mac since the Apple II. And it seems that I was wrong: VoiceOver is a fully functional piece of kit.
This represents the cutting edge of accessible technology for the blind. It cuts! I joyfully look forward to the day when blind people finally catch on and realize that for $700, HALF the cost of JAWS for Windows, the most popular software used or rather pushed on the blind, they can get a fully functional computer that delivers a superior experience and comes with a superior screen reader with superior speech. May the Mac relegate Windows to the recycle bin, where it properly belongs. Don’t worry, they’ll still have their corporate clients. This probably means that we can expect crappier services from these companies, but who cares, WE will have all switched to Macs by then.

Austin's re-conversion has come about—amazingly—because of his purchase of an iPhone a few months ago. VoiceOver on the iPhone, almost incredibly, enables blind users to use a touchscreen device with precision: for Austin, the iPhone has been a life-changing experience.
Last Wednesday, my life changed forever. I got an iPhone. I consider it the greatest thing to happen to the blind for a very long time, possibly ever. It offers unparalleled access to properly made applications, and changed my life in twenty-four hours. The iPhone only has one thing holding it back: iTunes. Nevertheless, I have fallen in love.

When I first heard that Apple would release a touchpad cell phone with VoiceOver, the screen reading software used by Macs, I scoffed. The blind have gotten so used to lofty promises of a dream platform, only to receive some slapped together set of software with a minimally functional screen reader running on overpriced hardware which can’t take a beating. I figured that Apple just wanted to get some good PR – after all, how could a blind person even use a touchpad? I laughed at the trendies, both sighted and blind, buying iPhones and enthusing about them. That changed when another blind friend with similar opinions also founded in long years of experience bought one, and just went nuts about how much she loved it, especially the touchpad interface. I could hardly believe it, and figured that I should reevaluate things.

I went to the AT&T store with my Mom. It felt like coming full circle, since we went to an Apple store many years ago to get my Apple II/E. To my delight, the salesman knew about VoiceOver and how to activate it, though didn’t know about how to use it. Fortunately, I read up on it before I went. Tap an item to hear it, double tap to activate it, swipe three fingers to scroll. You can also split-tap, where you hold down one location and tap another. This makes for more rapid entry once you understand it. It also has a rotor which you activate by turning your fingers like a dial. You can also double triple-finger tap to toggle speech, and a triple triple-finger tap turns on the awesome screen curtain, which disables the screen and camera.

Many reviews and people said to spend at least a half hour to an hour before passing judgment on using a touchpad interface with speech. I anticipated a weird and slightly arduous journey, especially when it came to using the keyboard. To my great surprise, I picked it up immediately. Within 30 seconds, I checked the weather. Next, I read some stock prices. Amazingly, it even renders stock charts, something the blind have never had access to. Sold.

Austin's issue was that iTunes on other platforms is not Accessible, and this was one of the primary reasons for his purchase of the new iMac—now he has full Access to all of the software that hooks into VoiceOver.

I know that many will see this post as simply another puff piece for Apple (disclosure: I no longer hold shares in the company) but I am seriously excited: now I know that I can start testing the sites and software that I build in a fully-functional screen-reader, I shall make every effort to do so.


Because I have seen, at first hand, how immensely liberating the digital world is for those who are disabled—especially those who are blind. Since I rarely get out and about to seminars these days, and work less than I used to with our partners, every now and again, I need reminding of how a little effort in software development can, quite literally, change someone's life.


Anonymous said...

I am no fan of the way that Apple will always dictate what you can and can't do with your own hardware. However, they do have an incredible knack at spotting a niche and developing a product that fills that niche not just adequately, but better than anyone who came before.

As there are no Linux screen-readers worthy of note, I guess the only time I would ever get a Mac would be if I became blind. I can hardly believe the price of some of that Windows software, shit I could buy half a copy of Maya 2011 for that.

Elby the Beserk said...

Good stuff. For 25 years I worked for a company providing among other things, library software.

For some of those years I worked closely with the National Library for the Blind (now subsumed into the RNIB), and became very aware the problems of poor design for accessibility. Flash, for example, is an utter nono for people with any degree of sight problem, yet how many sites do you go to that make you endure a flash video before you can use it.

NLB used Jaws by the way.