Reflections for Global #Accessibility Awareness Day #GAAD: Our past success wasn’t inevitable, our future success is not guaranteed
The third Thursday in May of each year is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. For my contribution this year, I am drawing from my experience as a lifelong advocate for disability rights and former technology product manager to reflect on our accessibility journey as it pertains mainly to screen readers, but also to other assistive technology. Where have we come from, and what are the possible bumps on the road ahead of us? Is there a roadmap that will take us to our destination swiftly and safely?
Understandably, we are frustrated when an app, website or device that could be accessible is not. But the fact that we even have those expectations is a testament to our progress.
Some of the progress we have made is simply a biproduct of technological developments in society as a whole. For example, reading newspapers, shopping, and conducting banking transactions online is convenient and efficient for everyone, including the nondisabled. For disabled people, technology has made it possible for us to perform many of those tasks independently for the first time. Offices full of filing cabinets and copious sheets of inaccessible hardcopy were common not that long ago. Producing documents electronically has allowed more disabled people to work with less human assistance.
But we would benefit from none of this were it not for assistive technology. We have made phenomenal progress. It has been hard-won, and it has its roots in disability rights. If you weren’t around at the time, you may not know that in the early days of screen readers, there was no official support for them from operating system manufacturers. The progress we initially made was achieved through hacking, in the most noble sense of the term. Accessibility was fragile and could be broken easily by an OS update.
By the mid-1990s, the screen reader industry was mature. Blind people could write beautifully formatted documents and proof what we had written in WordPerfect for DOS. Some of us were online and communicating with one another on bulletin boards and eventually the Internet. Competition between several small companies in the screen reader space fostered a culture of pushing the boundaries further and further. We felt like we were in a golden age.
But technology inexorably marches on. It is hard to overstate the threat many blind people felt was posed by Windows. How were blind people supposed to engage with all those graphical elements?
Blind people had a problem, and as is so often the case in the evolution of technology from the advent of the Braille code onwards, blind people solved the problem. Third-party screen readers began to appear that made Windows talk. They crashed a lot, they were susceptible to breakage by the most minor of updates, but at the very least they represented a proof of concept that a blind person could work in a graphical environment.
Over time, we saw convergence. On the one hand, the hackery became more advanced. On the other, Microsoft began to introduce specific software technologies, such as Active Accessibility and later the display chain manager, which acknowledged our existence. Yet again, that happened because blind people worked to make it happen through a mixture of advocacy from the assistive technology industry and blindness consumer organisations.
There was a period in the evolution of Windows screen reading where barriers to entry were much higher than they were in the DOS days, predominantly because of the need for screen readers to rely on an off-screen model. User interface was of course important as it is in any application, but the best UI in the world was useless if the underlying way the screen reader interpreted what was on the screen fell short. A screen reader’s OSM was its hottest intellectual property. Slowly, we saw a reduction in the screen readers competing in the Windows space.
Now, the world is a very different place. While I will discuss some of the problems below, I don’t think there is any doubt that it is a better place overall. In 1998, during my tenure as President of New Zealand’s blindness consumer organisation, I expressed the view that we should settle for nothing less than being able to walk up to any computer in the world and have it talk, so a blind person could have access without paying extra for it, or carrying our screen reader with us. Many people considered that idea a demanding, unrealistic, unachievable pipe dream. Now, we are there, and I think it would be hard to argue with the view that we have Apple to thank for it. They raised the bar by developing VoiceOver for the Mac, and changed the world for many of us when they devised a UI paradigm that made touch screens viable for blind people. Again, neither of those things happened out of the goodness of their hearts. Following the withdrawal of the only third-party screen reader developer for the Mac, lack of a current screen reader for the platform had the potential to threaten Apple’s access to the lucrative education market. Legal action regarding lack of accessibility threatened to prevent the procurement of iPhone by entities required to take accessibility into account. So, lack of accessibility was a clear and present danger to Apple’s bottom line.
Since making the decision to get iPhone accessibility done, Apple has demonstrated that the initial cynicism of some of us, myself included, was unfounded. Year on year, Apple adds meaningful features that benefit disabled people.
Things are equally rosy on the Microsoft side. You can walk up to any computer and start Narrator, which is increasingly capable. Many of us appreciate the user choice and higher productivity afforded by third-party screen readers on Windows, but if you need to get a lot of things done, you can now do it with the screen reader baked into the OS.
Google is along for the ride too, with a screen reader built into Android and ChromeOS.
It was necessary to offer that pocket history lesson to provide context for the key points I want to make. The accessibility we enjoy today didn’t just fall out of the sky. We don’t live in an egalitarian paradise. Disabled people dreamed it. Disabled people turned it into reality, undoubtedly with the assistance of many capable allies. When necessary, disabled people advocated hard for it, sometimes direct to manufacturers and sometimes to legislators. Failure to appreciate this denies our history and hard-won victories.
As disabled people, we must adapt to the consequences of our success. While many of us still use products from dedicated third-party assistive technology companies, the technology we use is increasingly provided by very large mainstream companies for whom accessibility is only one operating system feature, and for whom our market is just a tiny drop in the bucket of their gargantuan revenue stream.
Whether we work in the technology industry or use technology to facilitate our participation in society, it is our duty first to safeguard what we have won, and next to build on it based on clear principles. Because regardless of who produces the assistive technology, it must be us, disabled people, who continue to set the direction of travel. We cannot, we must not, surrender that right and responsibility.
So, what are those principles? Sometimes we forget that unless you’re an engineer, technology isn’t an end in itself. It is a means. Good, accessible technology sets us up to participate in all aspects of life. Inaccessible or unreliable technology can hinder it.
Nothing about us without us
“Nothing about us without us” has become a mantra of the disability movement. We as disabled people must be steadfast and unapologetic about demanding that this sacred principle of the disability movement is acknowledged and respected by any assistive technology producer, no matter who they are.
There is precedent for this, and it’s something mainstream companies are used to. Before entering new geographical markets, multinational companies spend time understanding the unique characteristics and culture of that market. To deliver accessibility in a culturally appropriate manner, the unique requirements and culture of each impairment group must be researched, understood and respected. The blind community, Deaf community, those who are neurodiverse, people with physical impairments…all need to be engaged with separately and meaningfully.
This may sometimes pose a cultural clash. For example, we are often told that Apple will not engage in this sort of dialogue because it is their custom to decide what users need, even if the users don’t know that they need it. There is a place for that kind of innovation, of course, but there is also a need for Apple to respect that in a disability context, this is culturally insensitive. Too often, disabled people have been expected to be the passive recipients of the products and services we use. In other words, “you’ll take what you’re given and like it, thank you very much.” If you treat us as if we should be the grateful recipients of your benevolence, that’s ableism, pure and simple.
Not only is “nothing about us without us” culturally appropriate, it simply makes business sense that greater end-user involvement will result in better products. A lack of this understanding nearly saw me making a browser switch. Microsoft’s browser, Edge, has become my browser of choice on Windows since it adopted the Chromium engine. It’s fast, gentle on the battery, and the immersive Reader, just a key press away, reduces the clutter on websites and, for those who prefer such things, offers exceptionally high-quality text-to-speech for the reading of web pages. Yet without warning or explanation, my efficiency when using the browser took a hit when it suddenly began verbalising status information such as “loading page,” and “Load complete. We are seeing this kind of thing increasingly with Microsoft, where its tools are accessible while being verbose and cumbersome to use. The degradation of spell-checking efficiency in Microsoft office is another example. Luckily for Microsoft, and more importantly, luckily for users who are bothered by this, third-party screen readers and tools on Windows can come to the rescue in some cases, and undo Microsoft’s damage by filtering out the horrible verbiage. But that shouldn’t be necessary.
There seems no way that the blind community can sit down and have a meaningful dialogue with Microsoft about the way they are killing our productivity with kindness. Third-party screen readers are an example to follow in this regard. We meet with screen reader companies at conferences and conventions in a true spirit of co-design. Potential features are discussed, debated and refined. Beta testers of third-party screen readers get to have dialogue directly with the developers. Even if you are not a tester, most of us know who the key players are and we can reach them. Due to scale, it may be difficult to replicate that experience exactly, but mainstream companies who have now also become assistive technology companies must do better in seeking out groups of users of varying experience levels who can articulate some of the concerns we have. I am talking about users who will do more than pat the companies on the head and tell them how marvellous they are. These users would be those who rely on these products at home, work and school,, who can articulate weaknesses in current offerings and constructively propose solutions.
Diversity means disabled
“Nothing about us without us” also means that we must encourage mainstream companies to employ more disabled people. It should go without saying that disabled people must be present in the development of accessibility solutions in mainstream companies, preferably leading those teams. But we must dream bigger. Many mainstream technology companies now produce diversity reports in which they account for their progress towards making their workforce more inclusive. Disabled people are seldom mentioned. It is time for mainstream companies to hire more disabled people in a wide range of positions, including executive leadership. There is no need to pigeonhole us in the disability space. If more disabled people were in key positions throughout the tech industry, the entire industry would benefit from the diversity of thinking such people would bring to the table. I look forward to the day that disabled people regularly appear in the keynote events organised by large technology companies.
To deliver independence, technology must be dependable
Another key principle that is critical for the participation of disabled people in society is that disabled people are entitled to have technology that is just as reliable as it is for nondisabled people. The pioneering days of hackery by tiny Mom and Pop companies are behind us, the technology is mature and the resources available to these large players are immense. It is wrong to dangle the promise of the empowering nature of this technology in front of people, only for them to find out that the promise is hollow because of defects. Fobbing disabled people off with high-impact bugs is a choice, and a moral failing.
Whether we’re disabled or not, when our technology fails, we know how that can impede our productivity and access to information. Our workplaces and our homes are highly dependent on the technology in them now. But technology problems are even more impactful for disabled people, for the reasons I outlined at the beginning of this article. When our technology isn’t working properly, it can deprive us of access to a wide range of information, the ability to transact business, and communicate. For nondisabled people, there may be alternative ways of doing these things. They may be less convenient, but at least they exist. That is not always the case for a disabled person.
For all the positive ways mainstream companies have embraced accessibility, serious bugs that creep into the code can take much longer to fix than if they impacted nondisabled people. All software has defects, so they are prioritised. Too often, prioritisation decisions are made based on criteria that disadvantage disabled people, such as the number of people the bug will affect.
Only a few short years ago, some of us flagging these concerns were often called alarmist and ungrateful. Increasingly, disabled people perceive the problem. Yesterday for example, Apple announced some exciting new accessibility features to be released with their 2022 OS updates. For many, the enthusiasm for some very cool-sounding tech was tempered by one big question, what about all the existing bugs?
To deal with today’s quality crisis that pervades some assistive technology developed by mainstream companies, we must not be shy about drawing parallels that the nondisabled can understand. If you break my Braille output as Apple has done for much of the iOS 15 cycle, that is no different from breaking your screen output. If you wouldn’t ship software where people couldn’t use their screens properly, please don’t disrespect me by forcing your buggy code on me, placing my access to information and potentially even my job at risk.
I could provide numerous examples, but the point is clear. Those in quality control need to ask themselves if the nondisabled equivalent of this bug would be tolerable, even for a short time. If the answer is no, then the software is not fit for release to anyone. Again, if you think we are worthy of a poorer quality product, that’s ableism, pure and simple.
Only last week, Google proudly announced that the Android 13 version of its screen reader, Talkback, would include Braille support without the need to install a separate utility. Many of us were delighted by this. But there appears to be a catch. A Braille display manufacturer has stated publicly that Talkback will not support Bluetooth Braille displays using the HID Braille standard which Google itself helped develop and committed to implementing. Despite best endeavours, I have yet to find out officially from Google why this is, but have been told by another Braille user that it relates to the Bluetooth stack Google is using. Speculation fills a vacuum of course, and the issue is of such importance to those it affects that a clarifying statement from Google is required. However, if that turns out to be the explanation, it really says that blind people simply aren’t important enough to warrant the assembling of a cross-functional team to give this issue the urgent attention it deserves. Google’s software engineers are some of the best and brightest in the world. Whatever the problem turns out to be, surely it is fixable if there were a will to fix it.
Following the concept of equivalency, would they do it for an agreed industry standard of printer? A new Wi-Fi standard? The answer is obvious, and the chain-dragging which is excluding users of these Braille devices shows a lack of respect for the customers affected. It also shows the dangers of being reliant on mainstream vendors unless we are vigilant in calling these issues out.
We are worthy
Fundamental to our continued progress on accessibility is our own sense of self-worth as disabled people. I keep a gratitude journal as part of my daily meditation practice. I am full of gratitude for the incredible progress I have seen in my lifetime. But it is possible to be grateful while also knowing that the best is yet to come, and that the best is not guaranteed. We are worthy. Our money is as good as anyone else’s. In fact I would go further than that. Because of the dire socio-economic statistics for most disabled people, in general, the amount spent on technology is a much higher percentage of a disabled person’s discretionary income than it is for most nondisabled people.
We have made remarkable progress in a very short time. We can feel proud of that. If you currently work, or have in your life worked in any way, to make the world a more accessible place, thank you. Global Accessibility Awareness Day is the perfect time to acknowledge and appreciate your success. It is meaningful, life-changing work you can be proud of.
To those involved in quality and product management decisions, I say this. If you are doing what you do because you believe in the advancement and equality of disabled people, and I am sure for the vast majority of people that is the case, then you must also accept that equality includes the right to offer constructive criticism about where you are falling short, without those of us who make these points being derided as ungrateful. If we as disabled people accept our worth, if we accept that the technology industry must adapt to our cultural norms as they do to any other market, if we are strong in our unwavering belief that the quality of the products we consume should be just as good as the quality available to everyone else, then the best will indeed be yet to come. But to get there, we must reject disempowerment and mediocrity. It is up to all of us, in a spirit of true partnership, to make it happen.