Assistive technology manufacturers, advocates, and consumers have fought many battles to make mainstream software and consumer products accessible. In November 1995, the Missouri State Division of Purchasing, Office of Administration, barred all Missouri government agencies from purchasing Windows 95 software until it was made accessible to users who were blind or visually impaired. This action caught Microsoft's attention, and things slowly began to change. Six years later, in November 2001, versions of screen readers that would work with Windows XP were announced just two weeks after the operating system's release by Microsoft.
Two articles in this issue examine Microsoft's accessibility efforts, and the company's plans for future products. Deborah Kendrick interviews Madelyn Bryant McIntire, director of the Access Technology Group at Microsoft. As Microsoft products are developed, McIntire's team evaluates them for accessibility and works to make the products accessible to all users before they reach the marketplace. This has come to mean involving assistive technology vendors in the process, so that those companies' products work with Microsoft's products upon release, rather than going through a months-long process of retrofitting. McIntire believes there will be a total shift to seeing accessible design as a fundamental of good business practice.
Joe Lazzaro, freelance fact and fiction writer, and project director for the Adaptive Technology Program at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, provides an introduction to what Microsoft hopes will be the future of computing for both programmers and novice users alike. The company's .NET (pronounced dot NET) environment is designed to have all the software programs we use reside on and communicate via the web. Is this approach a cause for excitement or concern? Will .NET software be accessible? Read this article for an introduction to what we will get with .NET.
Another battle for accessible mainstream products has been fought around cellular telephones. Mark Uslan and Darren Burton of AFB's Technology and Employment Center in Huntington, West Virginia (AFB TECH), present Part 1 of an evaluation of top-of-the-line cell phones. This month they present their evaluation of the Audiovox 9500 phone. In July, they will present similar reports on products from Motorola, AT&T, Sanyo and Nokia. AccessWorld has published three previous articles documenting the frustrations of shopping for cell phones and the inaccessibility of specific phones. An indication that not much has changed is an informal complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) alleging that the Audiovox CDM9000 was not designed to be accessible to consumers who are blind or visually impaired. Subsequently, in a letter to the complainant dated December 6, 2002 (which was shared with AFB) Audiovox stated that "many of the accessibility issues have been addressed and are standard features in our newest model the CDM9500." In an effort to provide a more useful product evaluation to our readers, we decided to evaluate the CDM9500. The original informal complaint against Audiovox is now a formal complaint. (See AccessWorld News for further information.)
Jim Denham and I review Pulse Data International's VoiceNote and the PAC Mate from Freedom Scientific, two PDAs (personal digital assistants) specifically designed for people who are blind or visually impaired. The PAC Mate is the first product to provide direct access, using a screen reader, to the Windows CE environment and applications used in pocket PCs sold on the mainstream market. In contrast, the VoiceNote uses a menuing system that does not require knowledge of Windows. This article discusses the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, so that you can decide which product is best for you.
Deborah Kendrick reviews Finding eBooks on the Internet, by Anna Dresner, published by National Braille Press. For most of our lives, those of us who are blind or visually impaired have had access to a limited number of books. Now we can choose from a vast number of books from many sources, if we can find and download those books. The book covers Web-Braille, Bookshare, and Project Gutenberg, as well as many mainstream e-book sites. Check out our review of this extremely useful guide. Happy hunting and reading!
Jay Leventhal, Editor in Chief
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