Archive for June, 2004


CSUN and Accessibility.

Via Tim Bray, Peter Korn’s comments on CSUN 2004. Apparently there’s quite a bit of accessibility activity in the free/open software and UNIX worlds: the GNOME Accessibility Project, for instance, and the Gnopernicus screen reader & magnifier. And Eclipse. I had no idea. Pity I didn’t know this a few weeks ago.

I recently took part in two panel discussions about technology and disabilities. Panelists included Earle Harrison from the Minnesota STAR Program, Deb Proctor from Minnesota Online (whose doctoral dissertation is on technology and accessibility issues for students with disabilities), student disability coordinators from several local colleges, and myself.

In retrospect, I probably should not have agreed to participate: although it’s still critical to my work, I’m a little tired of talking about web accessibility, especially in the general terms necessitated by our decidedly non-technical audience. I was far more interested in hearing my co-panelists describe how technology has helped and hindered our students and employees with disabilities. Regrettably, in both sessions, web accessibility dominated discussion. Attendees were clearly interested and walked away with solid messages, so it’s not all bad. I was just a bit personally disappointed to see the conversation settle there.

We didn’t just talk about the web, though. Earle, who’s blind, demonstrated some of the technology that he uses every day, including a PAC Mate, essentially a Bluetooth-enabled “Pocket” PC as big as a full-size keyboard. All told, it runs over $5000; assistive technology ain’t cheap. The disability coordinators had some very valuable things to say about the need for textbooks in alternative formats, as well as cautioning us against setting the technical bar too high when moving courses online.

We also talked about the need to consider accessibility in technology procurement. I think that by now it’s standard fare in contracts, but I fear that too often purchasers rely on vendor assurances rather than doing their own assessment. What I didn’t say but wish I had was that it’s important to actually check the vendors’ claims. Consider it due diligence to google around a bit, if nothing else. I’m thinking of one large software vendor in particular whose materials repeatedly claim Section 508 compliance, with no more demonstration or explanation than “programmed to meet standards.” From what I’ve seen (and no, I haven’t done a formal review), I wouldn’t agree with that assertion. So it’s important to push for more information.

Earle brought up Apple’s upcoming spoken interface and accessibility APIs and suggested something that I hadn’t considered: this is a threat to companies like Freedom Scientific, as it moves the capabilities of software like JAWS to the operating system. I’m not sure why, but I have a hunch that Mac OS X apps are more likely to comply with Apple’s user interface guidelines than Windows apps take advantage of Microsoft’s accessibility APIs. Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft has done a lot to enable accessibility. I just think it a shame that developers don’t leverage that work and am excited about Apple’s approach and hope that I understand it correctly.

One final note: the Minnesota STAR Program produces a monthly webcast “radio” program called “Where’s it AT” that discusses assistive technology issues. Good stuff.


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