September 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 9

Technology Commentary

Responding to Shifts in Technology: Accessibility in a Changing Environment

Sometimes it seems the only constant in the world of technology is change. Often, changes in technology can lead to challenges for people with vision loss. Many of us are old enough to remember the severe problems brought about by Microsoft's shift from DOS to the graphical user interface. Today, we are in the midst of quickly advancing trends in technology that require a shift in the way we approach technology access and independence. The technology trends at issue include the dramatic shift of computing toward mobile information technology and rapidly developed apps, along with the emergence of cloud computing and the permeation of social network-driven communication throughout all layers of society and commerce. For consumers with vision loss, overlaying all of these changes is the increased expectation of built-in accessibility, spurred by Apple's built-in VoiceOver accessibility feature. These developments will supplant the centrality of the personal computer (desktop or laptop) in our offices, upend traditional entertainment equipment (televisions and stereos), and likely finalize the move away from print on paper in books and newspapers.

Though these trends will disrupt the methods we've used to access the personal computer and information, they are not necessarily negative. In fact, many current technology developments may ultimately have a positive impact on access for people with vision loss. After all, while the shift away from the text-based DOS computing environment was difficult, I think most of us would agree that for the last 15 years or so, we have had relatively good and improving access to Windows-based personal computers and applications. In addition, many of us find Apple products to be liberating, providing access to information in new and exciting ways.

Tablet Computing: The Whole World in Your Hands

The hand-held tablet computer has certainly arrived in a big way. Tablets provide communication functionality, information access, location services, and entertainment offerings in highly portable, extremely powerful devices. The tablet computer, almost always featuring a touchscreen as a central component of the navigation interface, is rapidly supplanting the laptop and desktop personal computer. While both the Apple iOS and the Google Android OS provide a level of built-in accessibility (Apple's being by far the better of the two), the complexity of, and lack of tactile controls on, these devices make them devilishly hard for a significant number of consumers to use. The vast array of features contained in the popular tablet devices, so beguiling for some, is off-putting for others. The touch interface, which has been embraced even by blind consumers, is also unwelcome for others (including blind consumers) who yearn for buttons, keys, and knobs.

In addition, there is lingering uncertainty regarding the extent to which access will be assured for these devices. All Apple iOS devices, including the iPad, provide robust access. Android tablet products provide some built-in access, with the prospect of additional access through third-party software. RIM introduced its BlackBerry tablet product, PlayBook, without any built-in accessibility at all, and the very popular Galaxy from Samsung and Xoom from Motorola do not offer accessibility comparable to the iPad. Even where access is robust, can we be sure that the user interface for a given tablet device will be sufficient for consumers who rely on accessibility features?

Apps: Thousands of Benefits, Thousands of Challenges

The computing power, flexibility, processing speed, and popularity of Apple's iPhone, paired with its established iTunes retail marketplace, opened up a new product profile for software developers: the app. Though the term "app" has been used for decades as an abbreviation for "application," in today's parlance, an app is a software program, usually with a tightly targeted purpose, that has been developed specifically for use on smartphones and other portable computing devices. Since 2008, when the iPhone launched, hundreds of thousands of apps have been created for iOS and Android devices. Large companies and independent programmers alike have developed apps to provide entertainment, solve problems, speed the delivery of information, and much more.

While the advent of the app promises seemingly unlimited opportunities for the expansion of the capabilities of portable devices, there are nonetheless concerns and uncertainties for users with vision loss in this new environment. First, accessibility for every app is not assured. While Apple has published solid development resources that support accessibility, inaccessible apps are still frequently approved for sale by the iTunes store, with barriers such as unlabeled buttons and interference with VoiceOver speech. Developers working on apps in non-Apple environments have less guidance on accessibility, paired with platforms that have less effective, or fewer, accessibility features on the whole. Because the field has developed so quickly, there is significantly less knowledge regarding accessibility for apps in general.

We know from experience that it is possible to have an impact on developers of Windows software when it comes to accessibility issues. We will have to see if app developers are able and willing to respond to accessibility concerns with their products.

The Cloud: The Future of Computing Raises New Accessibility Concerns

Everyone is talking about "the cloud," and I don't mean the weather. Cloud computing enables storage of, and access to, digital assets through an Internet-based network so that a user can share, retrieve, and adjust his or her data regardless of location or hardware. The idea of using the cloud has become exceedingly popular, especially in government agencies and large corporations.

Despite its obvious promise, there are also important issues that must be addressed to ensure success with, and access to, cloud computing. Extensive access problems also hinder the use of cloud-based tools such as Google Apps. This suite of free applications, available to anyone with an Internet connection, is riddled with so many access problems for people with vision loss that the National Federation of the blind asked the U.S. Department of Justice to take legal action against universities who plan to use Google Apps in their curricula.

Barriers to cloud computing are not limited to the disability community. The lack of ubiquitous broadband capacity means that if you're not connected to the Internet through broadband, cloud computing will not be feasible for you. Many have also expressed concern about the security of relying on remote storage of data. Yet another problem concerns ownership of content. What happens if a company stops operating a remote server that contains your data? Finally, with all the problems we have now getting assistive technology to work in a variety of settings, how can we be sure that our access preferences will be maintained across a variety of devices and computing environments?

The Windows Operating System and Accessibility

No other recent development has altered the accessibility environment as much as Apple's development and support of VoiceOver for Macintosh computers and iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod touch), a situation that is made possible by the fact that Apple maintains a high degree of control over its products. Consumers with vision loss now routinely ask, "Why can't other products incorporate similar built-in accessibility?"

Historically, screen access solutions for Windows-based computers and devices have been developed by third parties. Under this model, Microsoft must develop and maintain programmatic mechanisms to enable assistive technology developers to provide access via application-specific configurations in their products. More recently, implementation of user interface automation has yielded positive results for accessibility. To date, this collective effort has provided a comprehensive set of applications that serve the employment and personal computing requirements of the majority of users who are blind or visually impaired.

Organizations representing the interests of consumers with vision loss are currently pressing Microsoft, and also Google and RIM, to build more robust accessibility into their operating systems and products. Recently, the Microsoft Windows Phone 7 was released without the accessibility mechanisms established in the phone's previous version, a circumstance that has raised the chorus of calls for built-in accessibility (and stoked fears regarding tenuous support for access by Microsoft). It is fair to ask, however, if built-in access is the right approach for Microsoft to take. Without doubt, VoiceOver provides highly-functional access to the core features of Apple technologies. While this means that many apps for the iPhone or iPad are accessible, more complex productivity applications, such as Microsoft Office and important products from Adobe, are not fully accessible. In other words, accessibility issues remain no matter how good a given device's built-in accessibility may be.

It is fair to ask, then, if built-in accessibility, similar to that of VoiceOver, would dramatically enhance the experience of screen access users of Windows-based products? In addition, would comprehensive accessibility compel Microsoft's own developers to ensure that accessibility improves as Windows advances?

The Future of Accessibility

From a global perspective, governmental accessibility requirements, interest in low-cost open source or cloud-based productivity tools, and cost constraints (especially among developing nations), add to consumer demand for more built-in accessibility in information and communication technology products, including those built on the Windows OS. Fueling this agitation is the relatively high cost of assistive technology such as screen reader and screen magnification software. The situation is particularly challenging for individuals living in developing parts of the world where screen reading software, if at all available and affordable, is often not obtainable in native languages.

A consortium called Raising the Floor--International is working on improving accessibility for people with disability, literacy, and aging-related barriers, regardless of economic status. In addition, activists and experts working in accessible technology have fashioned a new initiative to incorporate accessibility into cloud computing, the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) initiative, which fosters the development of accessibility preferences and automatic configuration into the cloud. Governments are even beginning to provide funding to support the GPII: the European Commission has already authorized funds and the Obama Administration has requested $10 million in the upcoming budget for the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

With this level of organizational and governmental advocacy for the needs of consumers, it's hoped that the technology industry will respond by implementing, improving, and maintaining accessibility across today's emerging technologies, as well as those yet to come.

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