Open Source Screen Readers?

A few years ago, a handful of Stanford University Computer Scientists and professors from their business school worked together on a paper discussing the relative security of free and open source systems versus security in proprietary software systems.  They concluded that GNU/Linux servers were considerably more secure than those from Microsoft, Apple, Sun Microsystems and Others That Use Proprietary Software.  The Paper Proffered the Notion That Open Source Software Had Fewer Quality Problems Because There Were Literally Tens of Millions of Programmers with Access to the Source Code, Hence, an Enormous Number of Programmers Were Available to Fix the Bugs in the Open Source Programs.  At the Same Time, Though, Few Open Source and Free Software Products Have Become Popular among the Average Users As Microsoft and Apple Provide Much More Friendly Interfaces to Application Level Software.

There Has Been a Flurry of Activity in the Free and Open Source Communities for Making Software That Is Accessible to People with Disabilities.  As I Wrote the Other Day, along with a Handful of Partners, I Have Launched to Serve As a Portal to Open Source and Free Access Technology Programs.  The Question Arises, Though, if the Open Source Community Cannot Provide Interfaces That People without Disabilities Find Desirable will We Be Able to Succeed in doing so for Our Community?  I Feel That the Answer to This Question Is, Probably.

The Source of My Optimism for Open Source Access Technology Comes from the Same Theoretical Basis for the Explanation As to Why the GNU/Linux Systems Are Able to Provide Greater Security Than Solaris and Other Proprietary Systems.  Having Worked at Henter-Joyce and Freedom Scientific and Remaining Active on Mailing Lists Populated by Blind Computer Users, I Can Attest to the Great Expectations That Our Community Places up on the Developers of Software We Use.  Sometimes, the Criticism can be so Strong and Feel like Such Terrible Hostility That Some Programmers Will Shy Away from Listening.  In Most of the Cases That I’ve Observed, However, People Who Make Access Technology, Especially the Open-Source and JAWS Script Hackers, Listened to the Suggestions from the Community and Work Their Asses off to Implement the Features Requested.

On the Gnome Desktop, There Are Currently Two Open Source Screen Reader Projects Underway.  LSR from IBM and ORCA from Sun Microsystems.  The Non-Visual Desktop Application (NVDA), an Open Source Solution Written in Python, Has Recently Been Released for the Windows Operating System.  There Are Also Quite a Number of Free and Open Source Screen Reader like Programs for the GNU/Linux Text based Console Systems.  I Have yet to Use Any of These, so My Opinions about Them Are Informed Entirely by Other People.

JAWS Scripts, However, Probably Represent the Largest Body of Open-Source Access Technology in Existence Today.  People like Brian Hartgen, Doug Lee, Jim Snow Barger, Jamal Nazrui and Far Too Many Others for Me to Be Able to Remember Them All Right Now, Extend JAWS and Provides Support for Applications That Freedom Scientific Chose Not to Make an Investment in.  In Some of These Cases, the Scripts Developed by People in the Community Provide Access to Essential Programs Required by Many of Us to Do Our Jobs.  These Free and Open Source Script Sets Get Updated and Have Features Added Far More Frequently Than Organization As Large As Freedom Scientific Would Be Capable of Doing.  Without Some of These Open Source Scripts, I Could Not Do My Job and I Expect There Are others out There in Similar Situations.

Thus, I BELIEVE THAT THE JAWS Script Example Can Be Applied to a Free and Open Source Screen Reader for the Windows Platform.  NVDA Has Just Been released so the Jury Is still out on Whether or Not the Community Will Embrace It or Not It (My Single Complaint with NVDA Is That It Is Written in Python, a Language with Strict Indentation Rules That I Am Uncertain about How Well a Blind Person Can Interact).  Other Than That, Though, It Looks like a Pretty Good Start.

To Expand the Possibilities of Mainstream Operating Environments and Open Source Screen Readers, Though, I Recommend That Microsoft Released Narrator for Vista and Apple Release Voiceover As Open Source in the Same Manner That IBM and Sun Have Done with LS Are and ORCA.  With These Tools in Hand the Blind Programming Community and Its Friends Will Have a Solid Launching Point on Which to Build a Tremendous Level of Support for the Programs We Use on a Daily Basis.  Having Access to the Source Code Will Also Give Those of Us Interested in Exploring New User Interface Paradigms a Solid Framework from Which We Can Work.

Will Open Source Screen Readers hurt the Current Access Technology Companies?  They Will Certainly Put a Dent into the Software Income but, If a Blind Person Can Save a Thousand Dollars by Getting a Free Screen Reader They Might Turn around and Purchase a Braille Display, an Embosser or Some Other Cool Gadget.  Meanwhile, to Survive, Programs like JAWS, Window-Eyes and the Others Will Have to Provide a Compelling Reason for a User to Spend Their Hard-Earned Money to Buy a Screen Reader If a Credible One Is Available for Free.  I Believe This Will Certainly Fuel Innovation and the Net Effect Will Be That We All Benefit.

— End

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

4 thoughts on “Open Source Screen Readers?”

  1. Howdy comrades!
    First BC gets a dog, then a Dragon, and now he wants a python? I’m glad you live in Florida, BC! I’m reminded of the time I was in an altered state of consciousness, jamming to some tunes on my Mackentosh stereo when I heard what sounded like a child under attack by an ax murderer in my front yard. Next I heard bumping and squealing sounds and banging on my door. I was convinced the mayhem was invading my house, and I began searching for my Beretta. Later I found out my neighbor had adopted a pot bellied Pig as a pet, and little Porky somehow jumped the fence and was being chased by animal control around my yard. Talk about a buzz killer! Seriously, I agree that something needs to be done with open source screen readers. I discovered it’s going to cost me at least $800. to upgrade to JAWS 8.0. I dread the negotiations with the comrade Mother about this expenditure. For some reason, she’s under the impression that the KNFB Reader is the same thing as JAWS. Onward through the fog! Regards, chairman Mal: Power to the Peeps!

  2. I don’t want to fan flames or cause a fuss but I think the drive behind Open Source is not completly based in the “good feelings” department. IBM would like to go full on OS for as many of their divisions as possible therefore they set off to create their own solution to the problem. Furthermore if some OS Venders are to remain 508 Government Compliant they must have some AT working some way some how. If there was no drive to make money in these venues there would still be little to none AT for Linux or other such solutions. Government contracts make a whole lot of money hence this, and ADA, fuel the new Open Source fires.

    You are right about things like the JAWS Script Exchange. You have stated that you rely upon J-Say which in turn came out of the third party scripting market. But then again J-Say doesn’t completly support JFW 8.0 yet and Dragon 9 just saw support in J-Say 4.0. My point is not to diminish the awesome work of T and T but to say that you are still playing catch up no matter who or the number of programmers working on a given project. It is sadly the way of things in the Meta Web 2.0 universe. Just ask any poor soul who has to provide Adobe support for the headaches of keeping up with the Joneses. In today’s high tech ever changing office settings we are locked out of many places. X64 for example. If people really want to strike a foothold I would say that this a ripe market for sure.

    I think it should be mentioned that Window Eyes has a “lease to own” option. This is commonly not discussed by those who bring up the “AT costs me too much money” debate. I think it is amazing that Doug and Co. have this option and it is a perfect way for those who want to learn a non Freedom Scientific product a way of affording to do so.

  3. Can someone help me locate someone in or near Houston who uses any screen reader? I am a programmer and I would like to start an open-source screen reader (windows based, I believe there are options for GNU Linux, but not many for Windows). I would like to start something from scratch or improve NVDA.

    I would like to a demo of screen reader (I haven’t used one as I don’t need one). I contacted Light House in Houston and some blind school in Austin. I am disappointed that they did not bother to contact me. I had also posted on craigslist.

    I would like to see a demo of screen reader as used by blind user. Please post here if you can help and I will send my contact details. Else contact me from my website uday(dot)net Thanks.

  4. Hi! I am Milano and I am a blind programmer. I think I can help if you need some more information regarding screen reader. I program in Visual Basic for my organization. You can contact me via email at or you can AIM me as well using nicemilano.

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