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Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Accessibility Expectations: Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

By Chris Hofstader

As may be obvious to people who read Blind Confidential, I talk to a fairly large number of different blind people on a regular basis. I often infer conclusions from our conversations and write about them here. Recently, I have held one-on-one discussions with four other blind men. Do not place too much scientific credibility that the results I infer from these conversations, on the topic of "Accessibility Expectations," as they violate two major research principals. First, I include myself in the results so you might call this a gonzo survey and, the other four people I talked to all fall into the category of personal friends and, therefore, scientific objectivity hardly applies here. Finally, all of these conversations were part of another conversation so no controls existed, individuals were not asked the same set of questions and my own opinions clearly colored any results that might be derived from this informal study.

This population of five blind men, only coincidence left out any women, includes 4 middle aged blinks and one college student. Half of us in the middle aged group lost our vision later in life, the other two were blind from birth. The college student also blind from birth, has lived less than half as long as the other four and, therefore, brings a very different perspective to the conversation.

"What differences, if any, exist in the expectations of people blind from birth when compared with those who lost their vision later in life?"

This question came up when one of those middle aged men, blind from birth stated that Blind Confidential always sees the glass as half empty rather than half full. In the following weeks, I pondered this notion and, when talking about the idea again, the conversation moved to the question: Do people blind from birth have a different set of expectations from those of us who went blind later in life If so, why?

I'll start with the group of four middle aged blinks. In order to move the separate conversations in the direction of the topic, I would pose the question, "Do you find life easier today than you did twenty years ago?"

Immediately, the split between the congenitally blind and those blind later in life starts to show. The two of us who lost our vision later in life, look back twenty years and remember times when we could see and accessibility posed virtually no problems. If we bought a new stereo component, we could bring it home, look at the manual and have it hooked up in seconds. We never struggled to figure out which bus approached the stop and we could read menus and nearly anything else that we found interesting.

The two who have been blind from birth, however, responded in precisely the opposite way. They raved about all of the new access available to them through screen readers. One described a then and now scenario as, "Twenty years ago, if I wanted to buy a new record, I had to call a friend for a ride to the record store, have them read me the information on the packages and then choose those I wanted. Today, I can launch any of a number of web sites, browse at my leisure and buy what I want independently."

Back and forth, those of us who went blind later in life would always find the many things that we could no longer do and those things we can do but much less efficiently. The blind from birth pair kept reminding me of things they could not do twenty years ago that, with JAWS, PAC Mate or an iPAQ with MSP, they do every day in 2006.

So, is the glass half full or half empty?

I move to my college student. This young man, a member of the JAWS Generation, grew up using JAWS and cannot imagine a world without talking computers. His sighted counterparts grew up with Windows and Macintosh and cannot imagine a world before graphical user interfaces. He looks at the world as both half full and half empty. This young man can imagine the future with really cool user agents that provide access to inaccessible appliances, he likes the notion of 3D audio interfaces and he finds force feedback, low cost, haptics very exciting. At the same time, our college student also describes how much progress he has seen and enjoys in JAWS and, more recently, with MSP that provide him with incremental improvements from year to year.

As is the case in mainstream technology, the kids often have the best ideas as they have far fewer pre-conceived notions. I learned this many years ago, when I could still see well and Turning Point Software, my employer back then got the contract to write a paint package for kids that would ultimately be released as "Fine Artist." Microsoft intended the software to allow children to make their own paintings as well as teach them about art history. We got to create really cool features like "cubist mode" which would convert a child's drawing into the cubist school of modern art. Perhaps the most fascinating moments, though, occurred when we watched the video Microsoft made with real kids using the software in their Redmond usability lab. The kids would click on parts of the screen that had no hot spot and then ask the adult why it didn't do anything. When the child was asked what it should do, they almost always came up with an excellent idea. Many of those ideas made it into Fine Artist before release and the program received rave reviews.

Back to my unofficial and unscientific focus group. The three populations all had different expectations. One pair wanted everything we had lost, the second pair celebrated everything they now have and the kid likes what he has but wants much, much more.

Does this tell us anything about how AT products should be designed in the future?

Because the study has no scientific grounding, no controls and is statistically insignificant, I wouldn't draw too many conclusions from this article. I do think this topic deserves further research so we can find more solid conclusions.

As my personal bias lies with those of us who went blind later in life and because the aging population will mean that an ever increasing number of people with vision impairments had once had sight, I think we need to push for the "everything" solutions as they won't hurt the group who has been blind all of their lives. Perhaps, though, those of us who write opinion pieces should also remember just how far AT products and accessibility has come in the past couple of decades. If these advances hadn't occurred the late in life group and the college student may not even have the ability to imagine more radical innovations in the future.

Are We so Dependent on Scripts and Developers?

Yesterday, Chris W., one of my online buddies, posted a comment about my item about audible.com. His comment included the thought that, because the Audible Player didn't work perfectly on his MSP enabled iPAQ that that the more mainstream solutions like MSP and PAC Mate aren't really that different from the blind-guy-ghetto solutions as we have to wait for the AT company to do something to make the software more accessible. On this issue, I strongly beg to differ and actually point above to the guys who enjoy all of the progress made in the last twenty years, even in the last five years that clearly separates the mainstream platforms in PAC Mate and with MSP or Pocket HAL on off-the-shelf PDA devices.

I use Audible Player on my iPAQ, PAC Mate and desktop, all of which run mainstream operating systems. The Audible Player is imperfect on all three and, although I could write scripts for JAWS or MSP, I'm too busy and too lazy to do so. Imperfection does not mean unusable. Certainly, Audible Player, if scripted, would perform much better. But, as it is, with all of the poking around with the JAWS and MSP cursors, I can and do use it on a daily basis. This separates the wheat from the chaff.

If I had a blind-guy-ghetto (one of these days, I'll post a Blind Confidential glossary so I can use abbreviations for such often used phrases) handheld, I could not use the Audible Player at all. I think audible.com might have a toolkit/API that a vendor can use to bring its content to their device but I don't see Humanware running out any time soon to write a proprietary Audible Player.

For my tastes, at least, I prefer marginal accessibility to no access at all. PAC Mate and MSP make this possible, The BrailleNote family of products do not. While I'll complain about mediocre to poor accessibility and do whatever I can to influence the mainstream companies to make their products more screen reader friendly, I'll yell and scream and start throwing things and probably end up in a locked psychiatric ward one of these days over absolute walls to even some accessibility. If it can't be perfect, give me something I can fool around with and maybe make work well enough for myself. PAC Mate, MSP, Pocket HAL, JAWS, Window-Eyes, HAL, ZoomText, MAGic and others provide access to everything even though the access might be poor in some applications; the blind-guy-ghetto products provide exactly what their vendors think you want or need and assume that we blinks are too stupid to do a little hunt and peck, peek and poke and use, albeit not as efficiently as we might like, programs that they considered too hard for us. Let me make my own decisions please.

Blind Confidential serves as a commentary on issues regarding people with vision impairments. No topic is too controversial for this online resource.

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