I’ve been researching digital accessibility for the blind for the last few months now and have spoken with many people in the industry as well with users of accessible tech. It seems that the industry has been slow to innovate, but things are looking up thanks to iOS and a growing number of open source projects.  Here is what I’ve come to find so far:

Digital Accessibility for low vision and blind users entered it’s current age in 1987 with the release of JAWS the screen reader for Windows PCs.

A screen reader is a piece of software which reads aloud elements on the computer screen as the user navigates using their keyboard.

JAWS and screen readers in general have come to dominate the ecosystem for assistive technology. When a single company like Freedom Scientific–the makers of JAWS–controls a market, innovation slows. While in other industries this may mean getting crappy customer service, or more expensive internet access, for accessibility lack of innovation means more people struggling to maintain their independence.

Regulation and Consultation

  • Federal regulations (Section 508 passed in ‘98) have created a market for consulting firms to provide services to government agencies in order to comply with requirements.
    • For blind users, compliance generally refers to integration with screen readers.
  • The outsourced consultancy model has become the norm in the space with these firms working primarily for larger organizations.
  • This creates a disincentive to build open tools and for smaller firms to make their products accessible.
    • Doing so would cannibalizes customer base
    • The end result is products from small businesses are not generally available to low vision users.

Top down innovation

  • Innovation in accessibility has been driven primarily by whatever screen readers (JAWS) decide to support.
    • Since Jaws is PC based, their close relationship with Microsoft has tied it to IE, which has notoriously slow adoption of new web standards.
    • However, the rise of NVDA has helped to increase the adoption of new standards.
  • Heavy reliance on Web standards, which are very slow to move forward (see previous bullet).
    • Large bureaucracies, with little enforcement
    • Fragmented adoption by web browsers makes development difficult.

The slow rise of open source

  • Open source projects have begun to appear, in some cases improving the adoption rate of new web standards.
  • Each of these projects strives to improve the screen reader ecosystem, either by creating a more standards-compliant screen reader or by making it easier for products to interact with existing readers.

iOS to the rescue

The release of the iPhone and its built in screen reader, Voice Over(VO), has had a dramatic impact on the availability of accessible tools. The simplified UIs of mobile devises make them easier to navigate than their browser-based relatives.  Additionally the ease of implementation of the VO SDK means that there are numerous apps that are accessible from the start.

An unresolved flaw

Each of these technologies is based on creating an accessible layer on top of an existing UI designed for sighted users. It is by definition a compromise, a suboptimal solution. The screen reader is a generalized solution that has to work with all visual UIs. While it works well enough to make things minimally accessible, they have an high learning curve, especially for non computer savvy users.

The metric shouldn’t be whether or not a product is accessible, but whether or not a blind user can complete a task as quickly as a sighted user.

I’m optimistic that the changes we are seeing in the accessibility industry are going to continue to the improve the lives for the 6.5 million Americans who live with low vision and blindness  (2010 census).

The Current State of Accessibility