Screen readers - the computer industry's air bags...
By Peter Korn on Jul 21, 2005
After a too-long pause from blogging, this seems like a great time to return! With the release of Mac OS X v10.4 with the built-in screen reader Voice Over (let me give a plug for the nice user community coalascing around it at Mac Visionaries), and of course our own release of Solaris 10 with the built-in screen reader/magnifier Gnopernicus and built-in on-screen keyboard GOK; we are seeing a surge in accessibility support in the industry. [This is in sharp contrast to the Windows-world today, where serious assistive technologies remain an expensive 3rd party add-ons]
It rather reminds me of the 1970s and 1980s time period in automobiles. In the 1960s most cars had lap belts in at least the front seat. But then Ralph Nader had published Unsafe at Any Speed, and after a lengthy campaign by consumer organizations the auto industry decided to install lap belts and shoulder belts in all seats of automobiles. Then in the 1980s U.S. legislation requiring "passive safety systems" led to the introduction of air bags. Before these additions (these "built-in" safety features), anyone who was serious about safety had to go aftermarket, to 3rd party add-ons like roll-cages and multi-point harnesses. Now it seems there is something of a "safety-race" in the auto industry, with each new generation of cars incorporating more safety features (crumple zones, anti-lock breaks, side-impact air bags, radio-for-help-in-an-accident systems, etc.). Safety has gone from a begrudgingly added option to a competitive differentiator.
Similarly in computing, accessibility functionality was sometimes thought of and provided by mainstream computer vendors (things like EasyAccess, AccessDOS, AccessX, and CloseView; along with mouseless support and large-print themes - the "lap belts" of their time), but for any kind of serious user, you had to look to 3rd party alternatives. But with a growing awareness on the part of the computer industry of the importance of accessibility support (along with legislation like Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act), the quality of accessibility support being built into computing system (and other information technology) is increasing dramatically. With our release of Solaris 10 last January, and Apple's release of Mac OS X v10.4 in April, serious support for blind access is becoming a standard feature of the operating system - just like all OSs now come with a web browser. And in Sun's case, serious support for people with severe physical disabilities is likewise a standard feature, along with Braille access for deaf-blind. Even banks have gotten into the act with talking ATM machines (they now have ATMs that talk in multiple languages). Can Microsoft be too far behind? [it is hard to resist seeing them as the GM of the computer-industry, selling the most stuff, but lagging behind in technology and functionality]
I'm sure there will always be a market for 3rd party assistive technologies - just as there are people who feel the passive safety systems (scroll to "Safety and Security") of some cars aren't enough, and have to add their own. But unquestionably the trend is to put more and more accessibility support direclty into operating systems and mainstream software (like the accessibility features of Adobe Reader 7), thereby supporting a larger audience of people with disabilities no extra cost to them.
The thing is, if the 1990s and 2000s in computing are analogous to the 1970s and 1980s in the automotive industry (and Microsoft is analogous to GM), then who is playing the part of Ralph Nader?