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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2000 Issue  Volume 1  Number 4

Access Issues

A Brief History of Microsoft and Accessibility

Microsoft was founded only 23 years ago, in 1977. It gained major recognition in 1981 when IBM introduced its personal computer, which used Microsoft's DOS as its operating system. The first version of Windows came along in 1985. A few years later, in 1988, the company added the first accessibility support program for Windows by incorporating work developed at the TRACE Center, a research and development center on accessible technology at the University of Wisconsin. Known then as Access Utility for Windows 2.0, the program improved the accessibility of Windows for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have limited dexterity—by allowing alterations in the use of the keyboard and mouse, providing visual alerts for the computer's sounds, and making it possible to operate the computer through devices hooked to the serial port. In 1992, Microsoft established a full-time position focused on accessibility. For several years, Greg Lowney directed the accessibility effort. (Lowney remains part of the Accessibility and Disabilities Group.)

Access to Windows for computer users who are blind or visually impaired was a long time in coming. The first screen reader for a Windows operating system was not released until 1992 when Syntha-Voice Computers released SlimWare Window Bridge for Windows 3.1. It was developed without much help from Microsoft. (Syntha-Voice was also the first to offer screen reader access to Windows 95.) In 1991, Ai Squared offered the first magnification package for Windows, ZoomText-Plus, which provided access to Windows version 3. ZoomText later provided virtually immediate access to Windows 95.

In 1993, Greg Lowney responded to the growing concern about access to Windows in a message to the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science (his message was published in a newsletter in 1994). He said: "I know that for many of you, Microsoft is a word not to be said in polite company. In fact, I'll even agree that much of the criticism has been earned." He continued: "Windows has probably done more than anything else to earn Microsoft the enmity of the blind community. Microsoft has been both hated and feared by many people because we were promoting a graphical operating system without making sure that it could be used by people who are blind, and the results have been disastrous for many people."

By 1995, Microsoft was making a much more substantial commitment to accessibility for the soon-to-be-released Windows 95. Increasing pressure had been orchestrated by blindness organizations, state agencies serving people who are blind or visually impaired (especially the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, then led by Charles Crawford), and the National Council on Disability. Two states (Massachusetts and Missouri) openly pushed Microsoft to commit to much greater accessibility for Windows 95 or face possible refusals by those states to purchase the program when it was released. In July 1995 (just prior to the release of Windows 95), Microsoft hosted a megasummit for disability advocates and developers of access technologies. A corporate policy on accessibility was unveiled, and planned accessibility enhancements were discussed. At that time, Microsoft began to openly discuss its plans to produce software that would aid assistive technologies in gaining access to the operating system and applications. That program, now known as Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), was finally released in the spring of 1997. (For more information about MSAA, see the article "Taking the Mystery Out of Microsoft Active Accessibility" in this issue.)

Monumental Failure, Great Leap Forward

Meanwhile, the intensity of interaction between the disability community and Microsoft settled down. Then, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 4.0 in the fall of 1997, and the blindness community faced a dramatic backward step in accessibility. After so many had come to appreciate the relatively good access afforded by the previous version of Internet Explorer, we saw just how tenuous accessibility could be. With one stroke, Microsoft had undone all the progress made to that point. Letters, E-mails, and phone calls converged on Microsoft and apparently got the attention of Bill Gates, then the company's Chairman and CEO. Microsoft employees now, only half jokingly, refer to "those dark days." The company promised to fix the problem, and although it took longer than they predicted, Internet Explorer 5.0 recaptured the accessibility high ground. To his credit, Gates agreed to address a group of advocates and assistive technology developers in February 1998 and did not duck from the company's failure. He took responsibility and set high goals for future accessibility.

Summing Up

Without doubt, the attitude about accessibility coming from Microsoft employees is far more positive than it was a few years ago. The defensiveness that characterized so many discussions in years past is gone. Accessibility has indeed become part of the company's mission, albeit a small part, and Microsoft developers readily seek opportunities to do more to address obstacles. Criticism seems welcome, developers are almost begging for users' feedback, and the number of employees working on access has dramatically increased, both within the Accessibility and Disabilities Group and in major product areas.

Microsoft has come a long way and has made the strongest, most visible commitment to accessibility of any technology company, but it is not difficult to argue that even more should be done. Windows CE does not contain accessibility features. Key applications such as Access are not nearly as accessible as they should be. Some other software, such as Encarta, has major accessibility problems. Even when significant progress has been made, new products are released without fully incorporating existing accessibility features. (For example, Windows Millennium probably will not include Narrator, the operating systems' built-in voice-output program.) Significant problems remain in Office and in developer tools, even though work has been done to improve the accessibility of these products. Assistive technology vendors generally commend Microsoft for the company's support, but they also note that support is uneven, depending on the application in question.

We know that pressure from advocates has made a difference in convincing Microsoft to do more at key points: first, around the release of Windows 95, and later, after the Internet Explorer fiasco. We have many champions inside the company, within the Accessibility and Disabilities Group and within some product groups. But these champions will need us to remain assertive in pushing the company to make good on its commitments and providing timely feedback on problems we encounter.

More Information

For those who really want to be in the know on what Microsoft is up to for accessibility, the company publishes a free electronic newsletter called AbleNews. To subscribe to the newsletter, send an E-mail to: <listserv@announce.microsoft.com> and write "subscribe ablenews" in the body of the message.

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