A Snowbird’s Tale

About seven and a half years ago, I moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts to St. Petersburg, Florida.  Years earlier, I had moved from Manhattan to Boston and felt like I had been exiled to a distant suburb; Florida life felt more like a distant planet   – a land evolution forgot. Throughout my first year here, I did my best to discover aspects of Florida that I could find enjoyable.  After about nine months, I came to conclude that St. Petersburg sits atop a god forsaken sandbar, Orlando is ruled by a psychopathic mouse intent on conquering the world, Miami (South Beach excluded) is a dangerous crime ridden sewer and the rest is a malarial swamp.  Over the seven years since then, I have discovered many delights in Florida and, today, I’m happy to call it home.

A recent item picked up by the blind news email list (a terrific resource that scans the globe each day for news relating to blind people, issues that effect our lives  and the various things we do) reminded me of just how much I prefer Florida during winter to any of the great northeastern cities where I had resided previously.  The article, titled, “Snow-filled street corners handicap pedestrians” originally ran in the February 17 edition of the Salem News, based in the Massachusetts town of the same name, which last saw an interesting event during its notorious 17th century witch trials and, today, hosts the wildest LSD ridden Halloween parties in the world.  A newspaper that, although I lived only a few commuter rail stops from Salem, I hadn’t heard of until the Blind News post.

The story, though, reminded me of one of the greatest accessibility problems that blind pedestrians encounter in the ordinarily very accessible northeast and that cause far greater difficulties for our friends in wheelchairs and with other mobility impairments.  The article talks about a woman named Sarah Smith, a Salem resident who chose to live in the affluent Boston suburb because of its terrific accessibility for non-drivers.  Smith, according to the article, in 1990, walked with her guide dog from Boston to New York accompanied by a sightie “only to read the maps.”

“I think of Salem as the perfect pedestrian city – until it snows,” she is quoted as saying, as Smith, Garran her 7-year-old black Lab and reporter, Steve Landwehr, “searched for a safe path to guide her across Chestnut Street a few blocks from her home.”

The articles with quotes from Ms Smith describe one of the nastiest secrets about the typically very accessible northeastern cities.  Specifically, the sidewalks are cleared of snow but the street corners have tall piles of snow plowed their that block all but the most athletic from getting past them.  This problem, according to the Salem Times article, forces Smith to walk in the streets rather than on the sidewalks.  This described my experience in Cambridge after any significant snowfall with a slight difference; Cambridge has much busier streets with much faster moving vehicles.

The question of responsibility for clearing snow from street corners forms the fundamental problem.  In most, if not all, Massachusetts cities the home owners bear the burden of shoveling the snow, people with corner lots shovel the sidewalk but do not have the responsibility of carving pathways into the huge snow banks made by the city owned plows.  Smith continues, “This is a safety issue.  We’re talking about a city that doesn’t clear its corners.”

The article continues with a lame claim by Salem’s mayor that the city is “pretty aggressive” with enforcing snow removal ordinances but he admits that they may not be as vigilant as they should.  Smith counters by telling us that she has seen these snow piles last for two weeks, well beyond the 48 hours mandated by the law.  My experience in Cambridge, one of the nation’s most liberal minded cities, directly corresponds with Smith’s.  I use a cane for pedestrian travel and Smith agrees that navigating through snow is simpler with a dog but still very troublesome.

One time, after a particularly difficult walk from the AI Lab on the MIT campus to our Harvard Square condo, I felt so banged, bruised and beaten from a two hour excursion which would ordinarily take me 20 minutes, I picked up the telephone and called then very left-wing mayor, Alice Wolfe at her home in West Cambridge.  I explained that this presented not just a safety issue but a discrimination issue as well.  I pay the same enormous property taxes as people who drive, the city sees it necessary to clear the streets of snow, why then don’t they clean paths for those of us with disabilities??”  

After pouring out my anger at Mayor Alice, a woman I knew personally and liked very much, she calmed me down and explained that Cambridge had an ordinance that required the home owners to clear these paths within 48 hours of a snow storm.  I explained that my boss might not find “my neighbors didn’t shovel the snow” as an excuse for missing two days of work and continued by reminding her that more than two days had passed since the frosty stuff had arrived.  I asked, “Would you think it acceptable if there existed some boundary to women, African Americans, gays, Eskimos or any other minority from traveling freely through the city?”  She grew silent.  Finally, I asked why the city of Cambridge spent over $200,000 per year to maintain the “Office of the Peace Commissioner” when it seemed highly unlikely that Belmont, Charlestown, Somerville or Newton would invade anytime soon.  Alice sighed and said, “Chris, I fell down too and I don’t have a disability.”  I realized that I lost this fight for my civil rights and continued my battle by ringing the doorbells of home owners who didn’t comply with the ordinance and calling city hall to report these bigoted citizens.

Sometimes, though, my adventures in the snow created a little humor and, often, let me meet very nice people whom I otherwise wouldn’t have any reason to talk to.  I can clearly remember April 1, 1997, the day of the April’s Fools Blizzard that covered the Boston are with a little more than 36 inches of snow.  I had to attend a meeting in the heart of Harvard Square that morning which, for no rational reason I could discern, hadn’t been postponed.  On a day with no snow, my walk from our front door to building where this meeting was being held took about 15 minutes; on this day, bundled from head to toe, I resembled Ralphie’s little brother from “A Christmas Story” as I left two hours early.

Within a few yards of my front door, I discovered that I had already grown disoriented and had little idea which way I faced.  Not to be deterred, the abominable blind man forced his way forward, whether it would bring me to my destination or not.  A little while later, I heard the voice of a cop friend of mine ask, “Chris, do you know where you are?”  

I asked, “Where am I?”  

The police officer said, “On Broadway.”

I said, “No, I don’t know where I am going.”

He asked, “Do you want to be on Harvard Street?”  He knew my regular path from home to the university.

I said, “Yes.”

My cop buddy said, “Grab on,” I took his elbow and, together, we walked to Harvard Street where he pointed me in the direction of The Square.  I continued my excursion and, while I lay nearly upside down on one of these snow plow created mountains, a group of students approached me.  “Do you need help?” Asked a young woman.  I thought about my condition for a while, “Ok, I’m a blind man, I’m laying face down, nearly upside down on a bank of snow and a sweet sounding young student has offered me help.  Should I accept?”  Within a nanosecond, I said, “Yes!”

This young student, Valerie was her name, along with her multi-national group of friends walked me the rest of the way to my destination.  I enjoyed a terrific conversation with these strangers and felt a lot of gratitude for their help.  On a few occasions after that, one or another of that group would see me walking somewhere and stop to say hello and, perhaps, join me in a conversational stroll.

I’m not using the occasional good experience I’ve enjoyed that resulted from snow as an excuse for the city’s lack of responsibility for clearing it up.  It remains a problem that they should solve.

Back here in St. Petersburg, snow banks seem the only restriction to independent travel that I don’t have.  The county runs a bus system but none of the busses seem to go anywhere I want to be.  Sidewalks come and go in a nearly random pattern.  Motorists often seem drunk and red lights are treated like suggestions.  Nearly every neighborhood, including mine, is bound by a few major streets that are impossible to cross in the time it takes a light to change and everything in this town is scattered far and wide so going from one point to another always takes about 20 minutes in a car and, if it’s a taxi, the cost is never less than $20.  

So, I miss my independence as well as my Cambridge intellectual coffee shop community but I don’t miss the snow an even the tiniest of bits.  This year, as has become our tradition, I spent New Year’s Day celebrating in our canoe, catching about a hundred ladyfish (a species with little food value but tremendously feisty fighters), an occasional sea trout or jack and enjoying the warm sun on my face.  Florida ain’t accessible but it sure has great weather and a beautiful outdoors in which to enjoy it.

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Tactile Clues for Mainstream Consumers?

Our Norwegian friend, Lisa Yayla, owner and unofficial reference librarian of the Adaptive Graphics mailing list, a really interesting, low traffic discussion list hosted at Free Lists where members write about various tactile and audio adaptations to bring information to people with vision impairments, sent along a pointer to a very interesting article from Business Week.  As anyone who knows me or reads Blind Confidential with any regularity will know, I prefer technology transfer, bringing ideas from the mainstream to solve problems for people with disabilities, I, therefore, found this article about using tactile sensations for marketing of mainstream products very compelling.  Typically, my thoughts on adapting graphical information in a manner that will deliver a high level of semantic information to we blinks runs toward the very technical but this article describes a fairly low tech concept that can work for businesses, the average consumer and people with vision impairments alike.

The article, titled, “Feeling Your Way in a Global Market,” speaks directly to the psychology of transmitting semantic information through the sense of touch as a global method of marketing products.  The article specifically mentions the traditional Coca Cola bottle which “was designed approximately 90 years ago to satisfy the
request of an American bottler for a soft-drink container that could be
identified by touch even in the dark.”  A few years ago, Advertising Age ran an article on some of the world’s most recognizable trademarks the list included both the Coca Cola and Tabasco bottles – items which can be identified purely by shape.  

While reading the article from Business Week, I thought of other products that incorporate their trademark branding into the shape of their package.  I can immediately tell the difference between Gulden’s and Grey Poupin mustards by the shape of their jars, no matter whether I’m grasping the jumbo Catholic family size or the miniature container that comes with room service in hotels.  The distinct square bottle of A1 sauce, the upright package of Pepperidge Farm cookies (I am partial to the Sausalito), Vlasic Pickles, Heinz Ketchup (or is it Catsup), Godiva Chocolates, and numerous other brands can be identified entirely by touch.  Even though I haven’t had an alcoholic beverage in nearly a decade, I can still tell a Budweiser product from Miller, Mickey’s Big Mouths from Sam Adams, a Molson from a Labatt’s and so on.  Finally, although I will probably never drive again, I can tell a Mercedes, BMW, Ford, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lincoln and other automobiles apart by their hood ornaments (I doubt though that this technique will serve one as an efficient way to find a car in a crowded parking lot).

Even some generic product packages, used by numerous businesses that sell nearly identical items, often describe their contents by the shape of their container.  These include: the nearly universal shape of tuna cans, egg cartons, traditional milk bottles, most CDs, most shaving cream cans and a lot of others which are not springing to mind right now.

The article quotes a Norwegian author, Marieke de Mooij as asking the question, “We do not have one adequate global language by
which we can reach global consumers.  Because formal languages are culturally derived, the growth of global brands would seem to be inherently limited by the absence of any common global language.  However, given the ability of the proximity senses — touch, taste, and
scent — to establish bonds between consumers and brands at the
sub-cultural level, could one of them — say, touch — potentially serve as the lingua franca of global branding?

I can’t quite imagine a world where products identified themselves by taste as I cannot imagine walking through the local grocery store and licking every item I come across.  I also cannot think of a world described using the olfactory sense as I can’t imagine how a Sears washer would smell differently from a Maytag.  But, using more tactile clues a brand can distinguish itself both visually and by touch without the consumer either needing to see the package or read its label.  I often fear that iconography will return our populations to illiteracy as, prior to the leap in the popularity of reading, businesses would represent themselves with a sign shaped in a manner that described their purpose; thus, a cobbler would have a boot shaped sign and a bar room would have a stein.  But, more products that could be identified by touch would be a great convenience.

The article continues citing many references from anthropologists, marketing experts and even Karl Jung who wrote about the primitive psychology of the tactile sense.  It also questions whether certain sensations would work more effectively in different cultures – a concept that seems not to been researched yet.

The article continues by describing that the two industries that use tactile identifiers in their packages most often are fragrances and toiletries.  They also point out that these two product categories are far less likely to be purchased online, hence, untouched, by consumers.  Fragrances, something I enjoy quite a lot, always come in distinctively shaped glass bottles (ok, Brut and Aqua Velva come in plastic but they also smell like New Jersey).  I can often guess when handed a bottle of cologne that I haven’t previously touched whether it comes from Armani, Gucci, Davidov and a number of other designers based upon the general “feel” of the bottle.  Armani products tend toward the sublime, Gucci toward the Bauhaus and Davidov products tend to feel “frosty” giving their entire product lines a similarity even when the overall shape changes from one item to another.  The Business Week article suggests that fragrance companies do this to deliver a sense of luxury and, as the contents cost very little, a designer bottle is probably their largest cost center.

Toiletries, on the other hand, are not luxuries.  According to the article, though, consumers like to touch them before making a purchasing decision.  The author suggests that this relates to a subconscious tactile sensation rather than the overt in the luxury fragrances or chocolates.

A world with a common tactile language would make shopping and identifying items at home much simpler for we blind folks.  Today, we can go through the tedium of creating Braille labels for different items but, unless the product is one to which we expect to return a number of times, the task is overly cumbersome (I always label a music CD or DVD but couldn’t imagine labeling a soup can for instance).  Various high tech products can help identify items as well.  A talking bar code reader, like ScanTalker from Freedom Scientific, can come in handy but, compared to a collection of Braille labels, it requires far too much time to find a specific recording in a collection of thousands.  Products with different shapes, though, like Gulden’s and Godiva are quick and easy to distinguish from everything else.

The article mentions a lot of different techniques that can be done with modern materials to create distinct tactile identifiers.  Apparently, all kinds of textures and, of course, shapes can be done with different types of plastics.  I wonder, though, how subtle a change in texture can effectively communicate information in an identically shaped bottle.

One failure of tactile branding that I can think of that is not mentioned in the article is the problem of stacking shelves at Wal-Mart and bundling large quantities of oddly shaped objects shipped wholesale.  Even the most radically contorted fragrance bottles ship to stores in regular shaped rectangular boxes.  How would a world of oddly shaped groceries, low margin products to begin with, justify the cost of additional packaging and shipping charges?

Problems aside, I think the article is a very interesting read and recommend it to anyone interested in such things.  I always find such things written for an entirely mainstream audience that can have an application in the blindness world to be exceptionally interesting.  Whether the idea of a highly tactile future will come true or not will ever happen can be left to conjecture, the idea is definitely very cool and worthy of contemplation.

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Actors Inside: An Essay

On Friday, I lectured at an undergraduate class in Occupational Therapy at University of Florida.  One of the questions I received from a student and, coincidentally later in the day from a professor wondered if Braille would go obsolete now that we have all of these cool electronic reading systems.  As the class and the conversation with the professor focused on populations, I answered with information I’ve learned from the Braille Institute and in a couple of scholarly papers that describe how children raised on audio books do not develop the same ability to handle complex semantic information and often stumble when they reach college and the workplace.  I’m no expert in either Braille or the neuro-mechanics of linguistic processing but, as I said, I had read a few articles and passed the information along as best I could.

I didn’t reveal any of my personal struggles and triumphs with Braille as my skills remain fairly poor and I’m a bit embarrassed about this fact.  Today, though, for Blind Confidential readers, I’m including an essay I wrote in 1999 for a writing competition about how Braille changes one’s life.  I got an “honorary mention.”  I didn’t like the winning essay much but conventional writing and conventional thinking never impresses me.

So, for those of you who care, here’s a seven year old essay called “Actors Inside” which once didn’t entirely lose a creative writing contest.

Actors Inside
Chris Hofstader

I retain no memories of the first time I learned to read. Intellectually, I know I did not enter the world with this ability but it seems as though words, books, characters, authors and the actors inside my head have been with me since birth.  I first noticed my possession of this skill when, on my third birthday, I read a book by Dr. Seuss aloud to my maternal grandmother who had brought me Green Eggs and Ham as a present.

The actors jumped to life, from where I do not know, each taking on the role of a different character.  Each of them speaking in a voice that only I could hear.  Their characterizations were always perfect; their voices, phrasing intact, remain embedded as my memories of all I read in my first thirty years.

My actors, the voices of my imagination, portrayed, in those early years, humans and creatures, trees and trains, ballplayers, lumberjacks, monsters and villains, mommies and daddies and little engines that could. My private remembrances of children’s literature sound like Babar’s francophonic accent, Pooh’s soothing calm, Lancelot’s deep chivalrous tone, the man with the yellow hat’s adult concern and the anthropomorphized sounds of Kipling’s critters.

As I grew older, the actors took on more challenging roles and more complex characters.  My high school years filled with the voices of Kilgor Trout, Billy Pilgrim and the rest of the Vonnegut gang; the delicate, delicious and dangerous Holly and others created from capote’s genius; Myra Brekinridge and Abraham Lincoln, Gore Vidal style; Juliet, Iago, Ophelia, Richard and, my favorite, Falstaff; various breathy voices of slutty women from my adolescent fling with pornography; Betsy Smith as described by Albee; others, familiar to all readers – Emma, Ahab, Oliver, Odysseus and Bloom.  My actors, in their wonderful costumes, provided friendship and comfort as my low light vision faded to black.

College brought on a new set of mental thespians to join the older and familiar.  This group traveled from throughout the globe to enrich my understanding and concept of literature previously foreign to me.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez challenged with the surreal but always beautiful Erendira, Naipaul brought the west Indies to life, Paul Theroux brought me to all corners of the planet and my actors sampled tastes of Asia and Africa, Nevil Shute brought me to Alice without ever going there himself and Anna Kerinina, Raskalnokov and others taught me about life in a former incarnation of Russia.  The actors helped me, through loud debates inside, to understand everything from Alexander Berkman’s notions of anarcho-syndecalism to differential equations and astronomy.  The voices of thought matured, grew and instructed.

Throughout my twenties, as my vision deteriorated, my personal theater company fell on hard times and most of the actors slipped into early retirement.  Their last performance, as least to my recollection, came in Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar, a sort of Lord of the Flies for girls.  Likely the last item I read visually was a label on a bottle of beer, scotch or gin.

My love of literature did not deteriorate with my ability to read visually.  My actors, however, found they had been replaced by the voices of my wife, performers hired by Books on Tape, Incorporated, a handful of friends willing to spend the time reading to me and classmates at Harvard who would record our reading assignments.  Finally, the voice I heard most frequently was that of Eloquence for JFW, a soulless computer generated reader which stumbled through the beautiful poems of Wallace Stevens, Raymond Carver and several of my poet friends.

My memories of Jamaica Kincaid’s angry voice will always sound like the Ukrainian woman who recorded her essays for me.  An Eastern European accent attached to the pain and rage of a colonial West Indian subjected to the racism of a dying imperial nation.  Natalie Kusz’s painful “Vital Signs” will forever sound like my wife sitting in the comfort of our Cambridge living room.  Walter Mosley’s E. Z. Rollins has had so many different voices that he and Mouse seem like they have multiple personalities.

A random series of events caused me to seek employment at Henter-Joyce, Inc. in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Moving from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the intellectual capital of the continent, if not the world, to a small city known primarily as a retirement community caused me little hope for any intellectual expansion.  Oddly, I seem to find growth in the strangest places.

Before moving the Florida, I had little contact with other blind people.  My pride prevented me from seeking help with activities like crossing streets – I had bought a cane years earlier and figured it out myself.  In my mind, I didn’t need help.  Learning to read Braille seemed like an absurd and antiquated idea.  Why learn a different writing system?  Why read with my fingers?

A peculiar series of events, increased exposure to other blind people and a bit of meddling in the love lives of a new and old friend resulted in my obtaining a desire to learn Braille, “Just to label my record collection and things like that…”

I retain no memories of the first time I learned to read.  I am, however, intimately aware of my recent struggles, at age 38, to learn to read all over again.  Braille has not come easily to me but the rewards are far greater than expected.

When Rosey gave me my first Braille lesson, coincidentally the first Braille lesson she had ever taught, I felt stupid and experienced embarrassment.  I enjoy the work of Umberto Eco and other challenging authors but can only stumble through my A B C’s.  My pride held my tears inside until she left.

The first words I read in Braille could only contain the letters A through J, without punctuation didn’t.  Approaching my thirty ninth birthday and I cannot yet read such classics like Cat in the Hat – I didn’t know enough letters.  I remembered Sister Anna, my Nazi-nun second grade teacher; teasing some poor child who hadn’t at age seven learned all of the letters.  I remember that I couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly struggle with a concept as simple as reading.  I felt ashamed.

Nightly, I reviewed my page of words: dab, deaf, jab, cab, ice, did, hedge, Bach, bed and started to hear voices from within.  “Is this some dadaist poetry?” asked one of the actors, groggy from years of sleep.

“No, I think it’s William Burroughs playing with Gyson’s cut up technique,” replied another.

“Sorry guys, I’m just reading a set of words containing the letters A through J,” stated the voice of my conscious.

My actors wanted to go back to sleep.  I couldn’t blame them as the next page, added to my Braille repertoire a week later, contained only random words built with the letters A through T.  A week or so later I could do all of the letters and started on punctuation.  The actors still complained.

The entire crew inside my head eagerly anticipated my first whole book printed in Braille.  The Life of Louis Braille sounded like it might be interesting.  I had never heard of an author named, L. T. Rodenberg but I usually enjoy adding new writers to my collection.

I sat on my sofa, Louis Braille on my lap and started, slowly reading the little book.  “The Story of Louis Braille by L. W. Rodenberg” proclaimed my title page voice.  I turned the page and continued.

After a few pages, the voice reserved for union leaders, guys from Brooklyn and other unsavory types piped up, “What the hell is this?”

“A story about the man who invented the writing system used by blind people,” I replied in my kindest tone.

“No, it’s crap,” shouted the thug.

“What do you mean,” I asked.

“Allow me,” entered the professorial voice, “This author misses all of the fundamental principals of writing in the English language.  He tells you everything while showing nothing and he seems to hold the irrational belief that ‘to be’ is the only verb available to him.”

“He doesn’t seem to think that characters add any value to a story,” added the female poet, “It’s all narrative and poorly done at that.”

“I think it’s for young readers,” I said, defending my choice of books.

Fear started to overwhelm me as I heard the voice of my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Larouque, shout, “Christian David Hofstader!  I’ll accept no excuses for this drivel.  If you wrote this I’d have given you a C- or maybe even a D+!  We ought not be subjected to such dreck.”

Scathing literary criticism is not new to my actors.  The joy of having them back far out weighs the annoyance of their complaints.  Learning Braille has reawakened the theater of my mind and its return is entirely welcome.

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Is There an Unspoken Contract Between AT Vendors and Their Customers?

A question that comes up from time to time to which I have made indirect reference in my postings about SMA contracts and, to some extent, in other items, asks whether or not their exists a silent, unwritten contract between AT vendors and their customers.  Recently, I received an email from a boss at one of the screen reader companies (not FS) that made a point of stating that quality always topped the feature list for each of their releases.  Having not done a solid side by side comparison of JAWS, Hal, Window-Eyes and Freedom Box System Access, I can’t speak directly to which, if any, demonstrates more stability than the others.  I can, however, comment on the promise or lack thereof that a screen reader will serve as a partner to its user and grow along with the user’s needs as well as remain usable in programs that the user has grown to count on.

This also presents an issue about which I can understand both sides of the argument.

Today is February 22, 2006.  Throughout the world, some screen reader users will, today, start up their computers and hear the Windows ’95 sound play and hear JAWS 3.2 or the version of their favorite screen reader start.  These people remain content with their older systems and don’t feel a strong urge to upgrade.  When they do, however, the cost can grow far beyond proportion to that which their sighted counterparts who lagged behind the technology curve for a while.  To wit:  they need to buy a new PC and as they don’t feel the need to buy a supercomputer, they plunk down the $799 for a pretty vanilla Dell system.  As the copy of Office ’95 still works well for them, they didn’t think they needed to upgrade but, as they were paying $900 to their screen reader vendor, to buy a new copy (11 years of upgrades would have cost more than an entirely new copy) they learn that the screen reader no longer supports any version of Office prior to 2000 so they pay another $350 to Dell to get Office 2003 with their computer.  They have now spent over $2000 to get a system for which their sighted counterparts would have paid much less.

We explored the question of where the responsibility for accessibility lies in an earlier posting.  There, I couldn’t find a definitive answer and, for the time being at least, I will work under the assumption that the status quo will remain intact and that we blinks must buy our AT from AT vendors and our operating systems and applications elsewhere.  Possibly, this solution is best as the AT companies focus entirely on making products for, in this case, blind people and, therefore, are probably more motivated to serve the blind users than big mega corporations where our needs may get lost in the proverbial sauce.  [Look to the earlier posting to see other arguments on this issue.]

The economics of developing a screen reader force the companies that do so to make very difficult decisions.  Every one of the screen reader vendors wants to provide the best and most useful solution to their users.  Unfortunately, a lack of both time and money, even among the biggest in this industry, can get in the way.  Thus, people with the best intentions in mind need to decide that their AT will no longer support an operating system or version of Office or other program that the manufacturer has stopped selling years earlier.  They know that some users will, as a result of their decision, have to buy new software and, in some cases, new computers to run the newer operating systems and software packages.  These decisions do not come easily to those forced to make them as they know the economic hardship that they can cause.

At the same time, the features supported in some applications may stop working from one release to another.  Thus, if I buy the latest operating system and use versions of software recommended by my AT vendor, I may not be able to use the same features I had relied upon to do my job with earlier versions of my screen reader.  This also presents a complex problem as when an application developer changes their software it will “look” different to a screen reader and might cause some confusion.  As users we can report these problems and the AT vendors will make a best effort to remedy them – meanwhile, we need to find a work around to get our jobs done or our boss will get angry.

Is there an unspoken contract between a screen reader vendor and its clients that said vendor will continue to support the applications its customers need to do their jobs?  I really want to say “yes” to answer this question but I find myself torn between my utopian vision of a world where screen reader vendors have all of the resources they would need to ensure feature stability from one release to another and the reality of the economics of even trying to test all of the possible cases that could possibly fail in a new release.

Let’s look at this problem using some numbers:  We’ll start with JAWS (I don’t know the other screen readers as well to make a solid analysis about them) and its 3000 or so different configuration settings, each of which can affect the behavior of another, intentionally or, in the case of bugs, not.  Then we take the number of Windows applications that are listed in the JAWS Popular Applications section of the help file (50 or more last I looked) and the number of Windows versions JAWS supports and their service packs (six or seven at least), the handful of different object models, MSAA, Java Accessibility API and anything else an application can throw at a screen reader to present it with information.  Now, add all of the features of all of these applications and operating systems, all of the different device drivers that might affect audio or video on a computer and then factor in all of the different little weirdnesses that every PC manufacturer seems to insist on pre-installing on new products.  Now, multiply all of those numbers by each other and you are left with the test matrix that a screen reader must pass to claim complete code coverage.  Once, a number of years ago, I actually put estimates in for all of these different numbers and, using Excel, calculated that there were hundreds of trillions of different permutations.  If one calculates that each test would take a single second, it would be a century before all of these variables could be tested.

Such stands the paradox, test the code completely at enormous expense or test as much as an AT vendor can afford and use hundreds of beta testers to get the software onto as many permutations as possible and then hope and pray that enough samples get tested to ensure that the screen reader has as few defects as can be found before a release.  From experience, I can say that shipping a new version of a screen reader was toasted more often with Alka-Seltzer and Tums than with champagne.  This process is complex and causes grey hair on the heads of AT managers.

We’re still left with the quandary: how can screen readers serve the enormous matrix of requirements provided by the panoply of different users without bankrupting themselves in the process.  Once again, I have no answer.  I think the next generation of accessibility API layers will make more accessibility “automatic” which should solve some of the problems but would require that everyone upgrade to the new OS and buy all new applications all at once to take advantage of the newly improved accessibility – an unlikely event given the enormous cost that solution would present.  Screen reader vendors could expand their beta teams but getting a larger set of bugs would only mean that they would have to find more high priced software engineers to fix the bugs which might also point to the poor house.  

So, what can be done?

Regular readers will undoubtedly have noticed that I criticize AT and OS vendors quite a lot but I also applaud their successes.  The class of software vendors that I feel eat for free at the trough of the smaller AT vendors is, of course, those that develop the applications.  Those that need a VPAT do as little as they can to get an AT company to claim compatibility and those that do not (Intuit for instance) will only help if they find some force to drive them toward accessibility.  If AT companies and OS vendors can work together to push the application developers to do a lot of this testing the problem can be distributed more evenly and quality of screen readers will improve.

I know that I return to cooperation and communication as a theme pretty often but it seems to be the only route to bring screen reader authors to a point where they can work on real screen reader features rather than working around accessibility problems in the mainstream applications.  I can think of hundreds of innovative features that can make screen readers more efficient but cannot dream up a business model that will drive the vendors, given the current climate of always trying to catch up to the next release of an application or OS, to take the leap into the future.

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Random Musings, Some Serious, Some Not

As you may have noticed, we’ve been making a number of changes to the Blind Confidential blog web page.  We’ve added links to other blogs (if you have a blog about blindness issues, please inform us of it and we’ll probably put it into our list).  We’ve also added links to many of the companies and organizations we mention frequently in the posts here.  I found that when reading this page with the links embedded in the stories that the choppiness of the speech annoyed me so, rather than putting links to businesses and organizations I frequently make reference to in the article itself, we put them into the side bar links.  We’ve also only have had blind people working on this page so far so we’re going to have a sightie give it a quick once over to make sure that it works for the photon dependent among us.

While I try to remain as objective as possible in my postings, I have noticed that I slant strongly in favor of JAWS, that I am fairly objective on Serotek, Code Factory, ViewPlus, henterMath and Dolphin but that I have a definite slant against GW Micro and Window-Eyes.  I hope to rectify this lack of objectivity in the future and thank old friend Earle Harrison for the dope slap over the weekend.

My day job has me working a lot on smart technology these days.  Just a couple of years ago I had evaluated the idea of doing something with the PAC Mate to make it understand UP&P and write some software to enable it to communicate with some devices equipped with the protocol.  Then, though, I could only find about 225 products that supported UP&P and fewer for other smart technology protocols that used anything resembling a public protocol.  Even with 225 products, most of them were routers and other hardcore nerd gear so making software to provide a PAC Mate speech and Braille interface to such seemed like a waste of time.  In my recent research, though, I’m finding more than 50,000 smart products ranging everywhere from dishwashers to streaming audio players to thermostats and beyond.  This is very cool and I look forward to building a user agent that blinks like me can use to access all of this cool stuff.  I also wish that I could afford to retool my entire house with smart products but, alas, we’ll take it one step at a time.

I’ve been reading a lot about blind athletic events around the world.  As regular readers know, I’m actively involved in Project Paddle Odyssey (link in side bar) and I’m happy to say that we’ve finally got our online ebay based charitable auction approved.  In the next week or two, start looking there for great prices on ZoomText, EaseReader from Dolphin and other products related to access technology, musical lessons and, of course, fishing gear.  If you would like to become a sponsor of PPO, go to the web page and send us an email.  We also accept cash donations on the web site.

It also seems, by the volume of news stories that I read, that more and more art exhibitions and touch tours for us blinks are popping up all over the world.  I will probably pull a number of these reports together for an article here next week.

Can blind people use a tablet PC?  I’ve been engaged in this conversation with John Gardner, CEO of ViewPlus and Professor of Physics at Oregon State University.  It certainly provides a number of possibilities with tactile overlays and “live” drawing programs with output to a refreshable graphics display like the one from KGS.  I plan on doing more exploration into this area and will write more as I learn more about it.

So, what’s up with Jonathon Mossen?  Once upon a time, he was a journalist in the blindness world who wrote and broadcast among the most credible articles in the AT press.  Now, he’s doing pod casts of he and his kids doing the dishes and an all love song Internet radio program.  Who kidnapped the real Jonathon and replaced him with this guy?  All kidding aside, I’m glad to see my old buddy being so happy in his new life here in the states.

I live in Florida.  It along with Ohio is the only two states that will issue a license to a blind person to carry a concealed firearm.  I’ve been pondering this issue and think I might have a cool new invention.  We’ll start with a Glock 9 mm semi-automatic handgun.  We’ll add to it an infrared receiver that sits on a cap that a blink can wear that focuses beyond the barrel of the weapon.  We’ll use an iPAQ to process the infrared image and lock in on the heat signature of a human being.  Then, using force feedback technology attached to the gun, the system will move the handlers aim toward the human subject and alert the blink that it is time to shoot.  This way, we can protect our homes with deadly accuracy and not shoot up too much furniture.  Of course, if both grandma and an intruder are in the same room there might be some unfortunate collateral damage but that’s life in America.

Enough random musings for today.  I’ll probably be back on more pointed topics tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.

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Who Should be Responsible for Accessibility?

Last week, I had an excellent conversation with a colleague who is also the blind CEO of a really innovative AT company about a whole lot of different topics.  One major issue came up, an issue that has been discussed and debated for years and has vocal supporters with valid arguments on both sides.  Namely, it is the question of who should be responsible for delivering accessible technology to computer users with disabilities.  As usual, I will use screen readers for my examples as they are the AT I use most often and know the most about.  I believe, however, that the arguments on this topic are apropos to people with other disabilities as well.

As regular readers of Blind Confidential know, Ted Henter has mentored me in the access technology field and that he and I have maintained a good friendship for many years.  Ted’s notorious 1995 speech at the NFB conference caused debate on this subject to explode for a while but, recently it has fallen fairly quiet.  Ted explained that the appropriate stewards of screen readers in specific and access technology in general must be the highly focused AT companies as no larger, highly diverse technology company would do more than the minimum mandated by regulations and that innovation would stop as screen readers will never represent a large enough profit center for gigantic OS vendors.  Ted asked us whether we should trust Henter-Joyce or Microsoft to deliver the best solutions for blind people.

I generally agree with Ted and feel that AT companies like HJ/Freedom Scientific and AI Squared have led the world of technology for people with vision impairments with many innovations over many years.  I also believe that newer players like ViewPlus, Serotek and Code Factory have picked up the pace of innovation as smaller companies often do in all kinds of markets.

To add to the successes of the AT companies, one can point to the relative failures of the mainstream operating system companies’ attempts at their own accessible solutions.  Narrator, from Microsoft, doesn’t even claim to be a screen reader but, for what it does do, can be very useful when programs like JAWS and Window-Eyes fail or during OS installations, when screen readers cannot run.  Narrator helps but, quite clearly, cannot serve as a total solution for a user with a vision impairment.  

The gnopernicus project, promised by Sun Microsystems for years as the screen reader to beat all for the gnome desktop on GNU/Linux boxes died on the vine even with the financial support of Sun and the programming skills of the guys at Baum, a German AT company.  To their credit, Sun pushes forward with the gnome accessibility layer and its terrific API and helps in the development of Orca, a newer screen reader for the gnome desktop.  I wonder, though, if the open source model has the critical mass of AT hackers available to maintain a fully featured screen reader and to ensure that applications comply with the accessibility standards designed for the gnome desktop.  Years ago, Richard Stallman hypothesized and since then some scholarly publications have demonstrated statistically that the open source model will provide greater quality due to the millions of programmers who can view the source and fix the problems.  I don’t doubt the statistical argument for widely used programs like the OS, the web browser, emacs, compilers, networking services, etc.  I do, however, question if there are enough volunteers throughout the Diaspora who want to maintain and add innovative features to open source AT products to serve a small niche of users.

Major open source accessibility efforts, like adding the use of the API to Open Office and the Firefox accessibility effort, required substantial corporate support.  In the first case, Sun Microsystems funded the Open Office accessibility entirely and its programmers did virtually all of the work.  At first, AOL took on the Firefox accessibility effort but, when they completed their legal settlement with Microsoft which required them to use MS Internet tools for quite a few years to come they dropped the project like a hot potato.  Fortunately, IBM picked up the Firefox project and Aaron Leventhal proved his dedication to the effort by nearly performing all of the accessibility single handed at the IBM Cambridge Research Center.

The efforts by Sun and IBM stand out as examples of excellent corporate responsibility as do many efforts by Microsoft in making their professional applications as compatible as possible with available access technology products.  One big difference, though, is that Microsoft has delivered accessible applications for a lot of years now and the gnome accessibility effort still provides promise for the future but little that can be used today.  I commend my friends at Sun for their efforts and, as I stated in a recent post, I’m excited to start working with their really cool new API but, for now, to do my job, its JAWS, Windows and Microsoft applications.

Continuing with the open source thoughts, I often ask why the companies that sells the various flavors of GNU/Linux distributions fail to do anything to help with the accessibility cause.  A recent look at the Red Hat web site finds under “accessibility” a bunch of pointers to access technology tool web sites maintained by volunteers and a lot about how to fill out a VPAT so you can claim that your Red Hat systems pass muster with federal government buyers.  Red Hat seems happy to applaud the work contributed by Sun, IBM and lone hackers working on their own time and money but seems unwilling to make any contribution of its own.  I’m not familiar enough with other GNU/Linux distributions but talking to friends who hack AT into open source operating environments, the others don’t seem to be participating either.

Returning to vendors of proprietary software, Apple Computer claims accessibility with the screen reader it introduced with the latest OSX distribution.  If access to less than 10% of the programs and features thereof that ship with your computer and even less access when the entire population of Macintosh programs are factored into the equation is considered to be accessible, I guess these newer Macintoshes can claim accessibility, albeit far less than what Narrator, the little utility from Microsoft can do.

So, we cannot call the track record of mainstream OS vendors vis a vis accessibility a grand success.  In my opinion, Microsoft has provided the best solutions we have today and Sun Microsystems with its gnome accessibility effort looks like it will prove a formidable competitor when, at some point in the future, it supports enough applications to warrant the label of accessible.

Everything I’ve written so far, though, has detailed the recent history of mainstream companies and their AT efforts.  I’ve hardly touched upon the access technology vendors themselves and the stagnation that seems to dominate their sector.

Regular readers of Blind Confidential (or those who read the archives) can see where I applaud AT companies for making cool innovations and where I fault them for ignoring concepts that exist today but don’t make it into screen readers that most people with vision impairments use today.

I wonder if the lack of innovation by the access technology companies may also result from not having the critical mass to move the art forward quickly enough.  As I suggested above, their may not be enough volunteers to make open source AT successful and the combined number of dollars that screen reader vendors can put into research may not amount to enough money to afford to get their products to the next generation.

So, as often is the case, we consumers are left in the middle.  

We should also ask the question, why should people with vision impairments pay so much extra (often up to $1100 for a speech only screen reader) to use the same features that our sighted colleagues get for the price of the OS and the applications?  Also, why does this extra price we must pay just because we fall into the class of people with vision impairments often provide only access to a subset of features of these same applications?

These questions seem to point to a solution by the OS vendors as they can include their screen readers as features of the operating system and require that applications to get the logo certification they sell comply with the accessibility guidelines for the OS.  Thus, when a software or hardware product is sent off to the independent test laboratories, accessibility testing gets included in the procedure and the vendor is refused the stamp of approval if they fail.

The certification and logo processes would, of course, only work for Apple and Microsoft as the open source solutions would not have an official body to provide a stamp of approval.  This would also force Apple and Microsoft to test their own applications against accessibility standards which might slow things down for sale to the mainstream consumers and, therefore, slow sales and progress in general.

Where does this leave us?  We have OS vendors with the financial wherewithal but likely not the will to build a wholly accessible environment right out of the box.  We have AT companies who need to deal with their own financial goals and likely do not have the cash to burn on making too many innovations and we have an open source accessibility movement that depends upon financial assistance from big corporations and lone hackers who volunteer their time.  Is this anyway to build a railroad to an accessible future?

Does anyone have a clear answer to these questions?

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Disability News Items

I’ve recently joined the Blind News Service at www.blindprogramming.com.  As I like to take weekends off from posting here, I think I’ll use the space to put up articles that I get from Blind Programming that fit into the categories about which I tend to write.  So, thanks to Leon and the people at Blind Newss here are three articles for your Saturday reading pleasure:

Blind Confidential: The first is about a sound addition to one’s kitchen:

From: Gimpy Mumpy (Blog)
Friday, February 17, 2006

Cooktop with Voice Navigation, Sweet!

Popgadget has the skinny today on a Sanyo Electric cooking stove with voice navigation and musical tones to alert you when burners have heated up to a certain temperature.  What a great idea for VI (visually impaired) chefs or gimpy cooks like me who need to go have a lie down while waiting for that water to boil.

Another great piece of Gimp Gear for the kitchen!

Via Popgadget

Sanyo Electric is to release in Japan the wildest appliance I’ve ever read about: their new induction heat-type cooking stove features a “voice navigation” function to make it easier to use.

The 200V Built-In IH Cooking Heater emits various musical tones when, for example, cooking is completed or water is boiled. The music can be downloaded from the internet via mobile phone and transmitted to the cooking unit via infrared communications.

The device also offers oral instructions for novice cooks.


Blind Confidential:  Frustrated with inaccessible Pod Cast software?  This open source project sounds like it might do the trick.  I haven’t tried it myself but will and report my findings in a later post.

Rok’s Planet (Blog)
Friday, February 17, 2006

Juice podcast receiver formerly iPodder

Want to listen to internet audio programs but can’t when they are scheduled? Ok. Juice formerly known iPoder program lets you create your own custom online audio anytime, anywhJuice formerly known as iPoder is aere. Really.

If you want to listen to podcasts, this program is for you. Juice is the premier podcast receiver, allowing users to capture and listen to podcasts anytime, anywhere.

Juice is free
Juice supports more than 15 languages
Juice supports multiple media players
Juice is free software licensed under the GPL (open source)
Juice’s primary purpose is to manage podcasts
Juice has a built-in directory with thousands of listed podcast feeds
Juice has auto cleanup, authentication, centralized feed management and much more
Juice is accessible for blind and visually impaired users (windows version only)
Juice is fresh!



Blind Confidential:  Accessibility trainining for library professionals:

eGov Monitor, UK
Friday, February 17, 2006

New web resource for library staff working with disabled people

By Source: Museums, Libraries and Archives Council

The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) has launched a new web resource to provide information and learning for public library staff relating to access and equal opportunities for disabled people. Part of the Framework for the Future programme, the resource aims to improve access to libraries and library services for people with disabilities by supporting the staff who work with them. It does this through a range of resources including learning modules, case studies and background materials.

Learning modules

The resource includes a set of ten learning modules which together form a flexible self-study package, to be used by individuals and groups from front-line staff to senior management. Each module is structured in the same way and requires the learner to do some reading or research, some practical tasks or activity and some evaluation. They can be used in a variety of ways: as a training programme for front-line staff, working through all the modules in succession; as a one-off training resource for staff needing to update their skills or knowledge in a particular area; to support other training on disability issues.

Themes covered by the modules are:

Understanding disability
Knowing sources of information and support including websites
Assessing your stock, resources and technology
Meeting the needs of a range of disabled users
Consulting with disabled users
Developing a new outreach service
Developing new publicity, marketing and advocacy materials
Developing your access policies and plans
Developing a specific improvement in your services for disabled users
Using technology to support the needs of disabled users
Before starting on a learning programme staff are encouraged to complete a learning needs analysis form, with the support of their line manager. The form is based on MLA?s Inspiring Learning for All Generic Learning Outcomes, and helps staff identify their learning needs in relation to supporting disabled users in their library service.

Case studies

The learning modules are supplemented by a number of case studies which introduce some interesting people who have, or who are working with people who have, a range of disabilities. The stories are presented as short video clips showing individuals or small groups talking about their personal experiences of using or working in public libraries (with transcripts). These are a good starting point in using the website, and also form a excellent introduction to the potential challenges facing disabled library users and the ways some library services are addressing them.

One such case study features Ann and Bill, who are both blind, discussing a reading group for visually impaired people:

‘ I said what I would like to do is to start a group, for visually impaired people who would read in an alternative format, and make sure all books that were available, would be available in the formats that were required. We listened to a book a year ago. It was The Girl with the Pearl Earring. We were able to talk at great length about the understanding of colour when you are visually impaired. Now you wouldn’t have done that in the other readers’ groups, but it was quite an interesting conversation about visually impaired people’s perspective of colour.’

‘It widens your understanding of the books that you have read. It gives you an opportunity to get off your chest something that bugged you. It can be very interesting and you meet people.’

In another study Joanne talks about her work with library users who have learning difficulties:

‘My name is Joanne Roberts. I am the Community Librarian at Rugby library, I have been working here for a year and a half now. We have been encouraging anyone and everyone to join. If they have trouble with the form we will help them or their carers will help them but they’ll all go away with their library card and sometimes the look on people’s faces to get this library ticket is a joy. There is a regular customer: he is a young Down syndrome person, he’s probably about 18 or 19, he’s obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer , which is fine because so am I, so we have a lot to talk about.

‘When I first met him I was quite ashamed of myself because I couldn’t understand him and I got frustrated and I felt that I had let him down and myself down. Everyone else said just don’t worry about it you’ll get better the more times he comes in, and they were right, as long as I don’t panic, as long as I just take my time and be patient with myself and him, we’re getting along really well now.’

Background reading

Other areas of the website provide some helpful background material. This includes notes on responding to enquiries from customers with disabilities, including some background to each broad disability and guidance on how you might need to respond. There are three sets of notes, covering visual, hearing and learning disabilities. The latter is particularly helpful as it deals with an area less well-covered by other resources:

‘People with learning disabilities may need more time to think about what they want to say or to form an answer, or may need encouragement to answer a question. This may embarrass the listener, or cause impatience. For the person with a learning disability it may cause frustration, or a feeling of lack of power, of being hassled, or of not being taken seriously. It’s important, therefore, that time and patience are given to those people with learning disabilities who require it, to enable them to deal with things as independently as possible.’

There are also links to useful websites covering both general disability issues and specific disabilities. These include users with learning disabilities; those experiencing mental health issues; with physical disabilities; hearing, visual or speech impairments; and with facial or other disfigurements; as well as some useful links to websites providing technical information, services or support.

The new web resource providing information and learning for public library staff relating to access and equal opportunities for disabled people is on the MLA website here.


These resources have been developed as part of the Framework for the Future Programme supported by MLA. Framework is aiming to improve access to public libraries for all. You can find out more at



Blind Confidential:  That’s all for today.  I hope our readers enjoy posts like this.  Feel free to send me news items, press releases and anything else that you might think fits into this blog.

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Visions of an Automated Future

I hadn’t thought of a topic for today’s post until my wife and I started talking.  I said that I had written a bit about smart spaces yesterday and, following that thread, we started talking about artistic and popular culture representations of the “Home of the Future.”  So, I decided to write about how visions of their future, our now, were depicted artistically.

Perhaps my favorite film to take on the clash of old and new technology and how it fit into society is the Jacques Tati masterpiece, Mon Oncle,” in which Mr. Hulot, Tati’s legendary comic creation, moves between his old world café culture and his brother’s modern world.  As one might expect, all kinds of bedlam ensues and the boy, Mr. Hulot’s nephew, enjoys the comedy of both worlds.

I think “Mon Oncle” would present a tremendous challenge for someone trying to make a DVS track for it.  While the filming occurred in the middle of the century, Tati uses many techniques of silent film and the movie has very little dialogue and that all in French.  The music, the whacky actions, rich visuals and many facial expressions make the film very funny.  I would love to hear any of the Mr. Hulot films brought to DVS just to learn how the script writer found ways to deliver the information.  Also, since losing my vision, I miss Jacques Tati movies because they made me laugh Outloud, no matter how many times I saw them.

Tati juxtaposed a very modernistic, Bauhaus design sort of house with Mr. Hulot’s home, a mixture of architectural styles that melded together as the building expanded over the years.  Both homes brought laughter as they depicted the most extreme of each community.  Hulot grew confused and made a mess in his brother’s smart home and, conversely, his brother didn’t approve of the organic structure in which Hulot resided.  I’m sure some will try out a smart home and want to go back to their old ways of doing things just for the pure aesthetic of having appliances that are not automated.  Geeks, like me, will wonder how we ever lived before automation.

Another classic example of a smart house in popular art is, of course, the Jetsons cartoons.  George and the family get served by their robotic maid, a bot so advanced that she shows emotions and sounds curiously like Hazel from another popular 1960s sitcom.  Virtually everything in the Jetsons’s house works automatically as do things in George’s office.  The family rarely worries about things technical and, in fact, all of the smart appliances in their home serve merely as props that the characters take for granted.  Will we ever achieve such a technologically utopian home?

HAL, the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” jointly designed by the late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and MIT artificial intelligence professor, Marvin Minsky, lived at the center of and controlled a very complex smart system.  This distopic vision of the intelligent agent turning on the men it was designed to serve probably portends the greatest bug any hacker will ever have in a complex bit of software and reminds us to test the hell out of our work.

Anyone who has visited a Disney resort may have stumbled into “Tomorrowland” Walt’s thoroughly bizarre image of a future that never happened.  If you have entered one of these very frightening places, did you notice that virtually all of the older portraits, from the earlier Disney days, showed white people only?  Did you happen to notice that all of the pictures showed all people looking forward and somewhat upward as if they could see the future as they walked, I always wondered how they kept from stepping in dog poop with their gaze always toward the sky?  I also wondered where the non-white people went, did Walt share Hitler’s image of the future?  Another question about Tomorrowland is why are all of the buildings, transportation systems, machines and such all painted white?  Wouldn’t that cause a lot of glare?

In his short story collection “Burning Chrome,” William Gibson (one of my favorite science fiction writers) includes a story which serves as a commentary on Tomorrowland.  I can’t recall the title but the story describes a scenario in which some people from our time are transported to another dimension, the one in which the “future that never happened” really did occur.  In one of his rare comical pieces, Gibson puts the protagonists into a world like Disney’s Tomorrowland with a lot of things included from old science fiction stories, old copies of popular science and lots of other things predicted by futurists that never came to reality.  Definitely a worthwhile read.

Finally, I’ll mention Jordi from Star Trek.  I think a lot of us blinks would love a visor like his.  I, not being much of a Star Trek fan wonder about how it actually works.  In one episode, his vision was temporarily restored and, removing his visor, he looks at one of the woman characters and says, “You really are as beautiful as I had imagined…”  This puzzled me as I thought he should have been able to know that by using his visor.  

There exist many more examples from art and popular culture of visions of an automated future.  Please write to me with some of your favorites and how they may or may not represent something you would like in your living space someday.

I know this article isn’t technically about blindness issues but it fit with the thread and, as smart homes grow in popularity, we can check on how accurate these visions of the future really turn out to be.  Our reality, brought to us through really cool new technology was part of last century’s science fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that people should be very skeptical of predictions made by science fiction writers and so-called futurists.  Everyone from H. G. Wells to Ray Kurzweil got some things right.  Our selective memories tend to remember the handful of correct predictions and we forget about all of those that never happened.  My favorite example of a prediction that came true but missed an enormously important aspect of how it became possible is Arthur C. Clarke’s description of geo-synchronous satellites published back in the fifties.  True, he conceived of the satellite system which would only come to actuality decades later but, in his vision, the satellites contained humans whose primary job involved changing vacuum tubes.  Clarke, in this legendary story, missed a topic widely discussed in magazines like Popular Science and Popular Electronics while he wrote the story that an inventor at Bell Labs would create the following year: namely, the transistor.  Clarke could dream up a complex communications system involving objects in outer space but the simple transistor, invented only a year after he published his story eluded him.

Clarke’s geo-synchronous satellites, so important to cellular communication, would in a world without transistors be simply ridiculous.  A typical mobile phone handset would be bigger and heavier than the Empire State building and I couldn’t even guess how large a GPS unit would be.  Without portable devices, geosynchronous satellites have little or no purpose.

I honestly do enjoy reading science fiction and futuristic novels (1984 for instance) but I do so for pleasure and to fantasize about possibilities.  I just don’t take them too seriously or else I’d be in the garage working on my own time machine.

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Smart Homes, User Agents and People With Vision Impairments

Recently, in my life away from this blog, I have been doing a lot of research into smart devices, smart houses and how people with vision impairments may best be able to use them.  I’ve read about a few blind people hacking together their own smart spaces but we cannot expect those without a strong technical background and the zeal of a hobbyist to go the DIY route.

Since joining the V2 Standard Committee a few years back, ideas about smart homes and smart technologies have been at the forefront of my thinking.  Freedom Scientific did a pretty nifty job with PAC Mate Commander to let a PM serve as an infrared based universal remote control which, as far as I know, makes it the first user agent that can be operated by a blind person.  Unfortunately, the FS program only handles IR and does nothing about UP&P, Home Net or any of the other smart protocols.

In the past few years, an increasingly large number of mainstream companies have entered the smart appliance business (for the purposes of this article, I use the word “appliance” to mean anything electronic.  So, herein, an appliance can be anything from a dishwasher to an MP3 player to a router to a PDA.)  The list of companies that have jumped on the smart appliance bandwagon might surprise some readers as they are not those that we typically associate with high technology.  Companies like Sears/Kenmore, Maytag, General Electric and many others we ordinarily associate with “old” technology have started selling refrigerators, dishwashers and microwave ovens that can be connected to a smart house network.

What does this mean for blind people?

If all was perfect, adding intelligence to home appliances would make them much more accessible to people with vision impairments.  A user could take their user agent and, through it, have all of the controls on their oven read to them and, much like using a web page or accessible application, set the oven to do what they want.  This would, of course, also be true for all of the other appliances with annoying flat panel, LCD or on screen menus.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a technology utopia.  To begin with, there isn’t a user agent accessible to blind people available yet.  Next, AT companies do not seem to be cooperating with the appliance companies and have little or no presence at conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show or the huge home appliances conference held in Chicago every year.  Some of the mainstream companies are trying to build in self voicing elements that blind people can use but these are inconsistent and don’t always expose all of the features.  I find many self voicing products from the mainstream to be very frustrating because they talk so slowly and do not have a way to change the speech rate either.

What about a Universal User Agent for people with vision impairments?

This project can definitely be done and I know some people in universities working on the problem as I type this entry.  I urge my friends in research not to attempt to design new hardware to suit this purpose but, rather to use off the shelf Windows Mobile devices like the iPAQ running Mobile Speak Pocket as it will be the least expensive and least bulky solution.  If an off-the-shelf device won’t do the trick (for a deaf/blind person for instance) I recommend the PAC Mate from Freedom Scientific as it also runs Windows Mobile so the software can be written to work with both commercial PDA units and the PM at the same time.

What problems stand in the way of developing a user agent?

A lack of standardization is the biggest hurdle to success.  Unless a consumer wants to be locked into a single source for their smart devices, they may have trouble finding products that are compatible with each other.  A networking bridge can probably be created that can harmonize diverse standards but this would be a tricky bit of software engineering that could have a lot of reliability problems if not done in a letter perfect manner.

What do people with vision impairments want in a smart house?

This question is one I would like to hear answered by people who read this blog.  Me, I want everything and won’t be happy until every appliance, whether I have a use for it or not, has been made accessible.  I know that I want a way to work around the flat panel, LCD and on screen menus for the types of products I already own (refrigerator, dishwasher, washing machine, drier, stereo, DVR, VCR, television, electric piano, drum machine, sequencer, etc.  I don’t know which appliances other people want to use so cannot set priorities beyond the most obvious.

So, readers of Blind Confidential please send me your ideas on what you would like to have in your smart house of the future and I’ll try to find people who are working on such (like my friends at U. Florida) and see if we can get your ideas integrated.  If you do a quick google search on smart devices, appliances, systems, etc. you will find thousands of different products out there.  The smart home future is upon us and now we need to make it accessible to people with vision impairments.

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Satire and The Use of the Word "Accessible"

Was the post about urinals serious?  Yes, it seriously satirized people who spend an inordinate amount of time and effort searching for things about which to scream discrimination.  I also intended to satirize the literary form which authors of such choose to write.  Finally, I wanted to say, “Chris, the level of seriousness on your blog has grown beyond proportion and its time to insert something as silly as possible to lower the tone a bit.”  Recently, the topics discussed here have moved to the very esoteric so I also wanted to include something as pedestrian as a public restroom to bring us back to issues that more than a few accessibility hackers find interesting.  I do find it amusing that at least one person took the post to be serious enough to write a long and critical response and I hope he returns reads, enjoys and perhaps learns something from the other posts that appear in the Blind Confidential blog.  People like Will, Peter and me and hopefully others who will join us in the future, are, in fact, among the top experts in access technology and will join the other research and development people to create the next generation and beyond of access technology.  So, in the future, if this blog gets far off serious topics, assume it is satire.

Today, I want to explore the definition of accessibility and how the term gets thrown around by different groups.  I will, in a serious manner, take a look at standards and the lack thereof and what that means for accessibility and jobs for people with profound vision impairments.

If a web validation and repair tool, like Ramp from Deque Systems, processes a web site and reports that the html passed all of the tests, can it immediately receive the “accessibility stamp of approval.”  The answer is no.  If a web site includes alternate text for its entire graphics, image map links and graphical links it may remain completely unusable by a person reading the page with a screen reader.  Specifically, if the authors wanted to find a way to get past a validation tool without doing any actual work, they could simply put the word “graphic” in every alt tag so, while a sighted user sees “News,” “Weather, “ and “Sports” the screen reader user hears “graphic, graphic, graphic.”  Thus the site can claim compliance but not accessibility.

Next, we may encounter a web site that puts useful text in its alt-text tags so the screen reader hears “News, Weather, and Sports” but the site contains so many other elements that finding the points of interest takes a tremendous amount of time, even if the user employs the efficiency features built into screen readers like HPR, JAWS and Window-Eyes.  So, can a site that follows some of the spirit of the accessibility standards and guidelines truly receive the label “accessible” if it requires a lot more time to navigate by a screen reader user than a sightie?

Moving on from web accessibility and onto desktop computers, what percentage of features of a program should a screen reader have available before an application gets called “accessible” and does the screen reader need to expose a usable interface before it claims compatibility with an application?  Virtually all Windows screen readers claim to be compatible with Microsoft Word, an application which is essential to the jobs of nearly everyone who works with a computer.  Virtually none of the screen readers work with more than fifty percent of the features in Microsoft Word so can the AT vendors claims of accessibility be considered true?  Or they 50% true if they only work with 50% of the features?

Recently, I did a very unscientific comparison between JAWS, Freedom Box System Access and Window-Eyes in Microsoft Word.  I didn’t have a recent version of HAL installed or I would have included it as well.  JAWS, according to its help file and my trials did the most but I could find numerous modes and features of Word that it couldn’t handle at all and, as some features can only be used through these other features, I could not get to a number of them to even test their usability (this being true for all three of the products I tried).  

Next I went onto FB System Access.  The Serotek guys have really come a long way in their latest release.  They do quite a lot of the things JAWS can do but they haven’t caught up entirely.  FB System Access does deserve applause for exposing some items differently from JAWS and, in some cases, they found a more usable way of presenting information which hasn’t been explored too deeply in the world of screen readers.  Of course, the Serotek guys have had all of the terrific features added to JAWS over the past seven years to use as an example and having a blind CEO who needs to use Word provides the Freedom Box guys with extra motivation to push the usability envelope.

Window-Eyes, I sadly say, continues to pull up the rear.  JAWS users have been able to read tables, columns and embedded spreadsheets in Word for years.  These, along with some other field detection features are recent additions to Window-Eyes.  Neither Window-Eyes nor Freedom Box did anything with the collaboration features (JAWS does a passible job) which any writer requires to work with editors to do a successful job, especially if a document has multiple authors – a common occurrence in many workplaces and academic settings.  So, in response to what I believe must have been market pressures, GW added some new features to make Word more usable for its users.  I recommend they take a copy of JAWS, its help file and the Freedom Scientific MS Word tutorial and use it as a specification for their next set of improvements to the world’s most popular word processor.

Both JAWS and Window-Eyes claim support for Excel.  Blind people who want to make spreadsheets beyond the most primitive, though, must use JAWS as very few features work well or at all with Window-Eyes.  Freedom Box promises better Excel support in its next release and its current support is similar to that in Window-Eyes.

All three that I researched and tested, though, came up far short of 100% accessibility (one of these days, I’ll set up three or four computers next to each other and create a table with MS Office features on one axis and screen readers on the other and fill in what does and does not work to generate an exact percentage and, perhaps, put a weight on each feature as to my perceived value of each feature to come up with a score that represents actual use rather than features for features sake).  All of them claim compatibility and, therefore, the user assumes accessibility.

Back to the question, what percentage of an application or system needs to be usable by a screen reader user so it can be called accessible?  Recently, Apple has added a screen reader to its Macintosh line of products.  According to Jay Leventhal’s scathing review, it probably works in less than ten percent of the computer that it comes with.  Can a Macintosh, with such pitiful usability by a blind person be called accessible?

Durable medical goods, like wheelchairs and such, as well as medical testing devices, blood pressure machines and the like, are all subject to FDA approval.  If these access technologies do not meet the government standards, they cannot be sold to the population that requires them.  I do not want to suggest that the FDA or any other governmental body get into the regulation of screen readers but I do wish there could be a voluntary program run by an independent organization (ATIA?) that can publish detailed comparisons of screen readers that includes a lot of objective tests (does it work with feature x yes or no) and some subjective tests (can a user complete a task more easily or in less time with product a, b or c?).  This can finally give screen reader users a way to see past the marketing hype and half-assed solutions that often carry the label “accessible” in the sales literature from AT companies.

In my mind, a product must be “usable” before it can receive the label “accessible” and that AT companies should do their best to ensure that this is truly the case.  Before claiming that something is accessible please make sure that it can be used by your customers.  Right now, as I mentioned in my post that talked about how Eric Damery blazes the usability trail, I think that Freedom Scientific and JAWS still lead the pack but my friends at Serotek are making a mad dash to catch up and the market share frontrunners like FS and GW should be looking over their shoulders a bit before Mikey catches them.

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