This past week, many of we so-called “AT experts received a terse email from a group we had never heard from before. The contents of the email had so few facts and seemed so ambiguous that a bunch of us immediately thought it was some sort of spam/fishing scheme. Then again, we wondered who would go through the trouble of finding top AT experts with widely read blogs just to hit us with some form of malware. Sy T Greenbacks is a character I invented so he never does anything without me knowing about it in advance so I am aware of his evilocity well before he takes any such action.
Thus, after asking about it to some friends, I was pointed to Marco Zehe’s Accessibility Blog. Marco is another FS refugee now with Mozilla and an undisputed expert in the field.
The top article on Marco’s blog, entitled, “WebVisum Firefox extension” describes this new suite of tools by some visionary hackers. I recommend that everyone interested in BC bookmark Marco’s blog as he publishes some of the best information in the biz.
Quoting directly from Marco’s blog, “was posted to the mozilla.dev.accessibility newsgroup. The things talked about in this post and on the WebVisum homepage almost sound too good to be true. Among the features are:
- Ability to tag graphics, form fields, links, and other page elements. While some or all of these features have been available in some screen readers already, this feature is unique in that it works across platforms. It also sends the data back to the WebVisum web service so other members of the community can benefit from the labels someone provided.
- Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to try and identify those images that absolutely won’t tell us through their SRC what they’re all about.
- Visual page enhancements such as a high-contrast profile.
- Suppression of automatic page refreshes or Flash content
- And most astonishingly: CAPTCHA solving!”
My only minor disagreement with Marco’s article is about the feature people can use to label and share information to give useful definition to the gibberish that causes such annoying noise on many web pages. Serotek’s System Access (the screen reader formerly known as Freedom Box System access – is it a coincidence that Serotek and Prince are both based in Minneapolis?) has had its C-Saw feature that performs exactly this function by giving the users a tool to label these annoying elements and share the information with other users on the System Access Mobile Network. Serotek has had this feature since they were just a tiny piece of the market but, over five years ago, Mike Calvo called me at my desk at FS to discuss opening this up as a standard that all AT could share – all of the established companies refused his offer which I believe still stands. I think it would be an excellent step forward if Serotek and the WebVisum people could work together to harmonize their efforts as Serotek already has something like 4,000 sites labeled which will make for a great jumping off point.
I’ll skip over most of the other features as they are covered nicely in Marco’s article and move directly onto the plug-in’s ability to solve CAPTCHA (often called visual verification) which has been one of the greatest boundaries to Internet accessibility for a long time.
In my own testing and reports I’ve received in emails, users have been able to get beyond CAPTCHA on a panoply of sites. These guys really nailed this feature; meanwhile, for a number of years now, the better established AT companies have ignored CAPTCHA as an unsolvable problem. How then a handful of faceless hackers somewhere in the world (I couldn’t find geographical coordinates on their web site anywhere) beat all of the big dollar screen readers with one of the most important features added this century. Simply put, the major players ignored the CAPCHA problem, told their users that it was impossible and the blind followed like sheep.
I have also felt a bit discouraged reading the blog posts by AT experts with vision impairment lately. Simply reprinting an AT companies press release without any sort of analysis is something AT companies should buy as advertising from us blinks rather than expecting to get it for free.
Some of the well established screen readers have done some quite innovative things of late, not as cool as solving CAPTCHA but definitely worth mentioning.
The new model for distributing System Access at no cost via the virtualized web-based SATOGO program and on USB keys for students K-12 at no cost is beyond innovative and downright radical. This remodeling of the AT pricing scenarios will bring AT to many people who couldn’t otherwise afford it. Readers should check out the Serotek web site for details on these programs but as SA has matured into a real contender in the Windows screen reader market, using the no-cost web based version can replace the higher cost programs in many cases.
The other great development that has come out recently is the Window-Eyes scripting facility that uses COM and offers programmers a variety of languages in which they can extend WE. This was not an easy task and as WE has, for years, advertised that no scripting was necessary, it demonstrated a level of courage by GW’s leaders to make the change.
Returning to CAPTCHA, though, why couldn’t the collective wisdom of the commercial AT companies come up with a solution that some guys with no background in the field managed to solve? I’m not suggesting that the problem was easy but, paraphrasing Jack Kennedy, “we do not endeavor on these projects because they are easy, we do so because they are hard!”
Now I’m really looking forward to hearing what Darrell “Captain CAPTCHA” Shandrow has to say on the matter. For years, he has been the most outspoken leader in our community regarding these road blocks to people with vision impairment effectively using the web. I’m not sure that this new utility will be a silver bullet but it is certainly the greatest innovation this market has seen in a very, very long time.