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The need to access computers has become one of the primary civil rights issues facing people with disabilities. The impact of the computer on education, employment and personal time has been enormous and continues to grow. Disability advocates now recognize that access to computers and the World Wide Web is critical to the quality of life for people with disabilities.
The suppliers of computer software and hardware bear much of the responsibility for this type of accessibility, and legislation over the decade has firmed up the requirements. However, some corporations have completely failed to meet these legal requirements, while some have far exceeded their minimal obligations for access. It is important for the disability community to express both condemnation and appreciation for the appropriate firms, and remain active in advocating positive change.
The biggest player in this critical area is Microsoft. Just as it inspires strong emotions in the general public, Microsoft has been at the center of a great deal of controversy in the disability field. This paper will review some of the issues and history surrounding Microsoft, and present some of the key issues for the future. As a society, we're not sure what to do about Microsoft's behavior in the commercial world. The same indecision exists in the disability world. Because of Microsoft’s power and willingness to use it against parties it perceives as not pro-Microsoft, people are also very reluctant to speak out with criticism of Microsoft.
It is crucially important to examine these issues carefully. Points of view other than Microsoft’s need to be heard. Technical, purchasing, legislative and regulatory decisions need to be better informed. The issue of Microsoft’s responsibilities is central in the debate over the responsibility of manufacturers to provide accessible products and technology.
The ultimate objective of people with disabilities is easy to state: they would like to be able to go to the same store as their nondisabled compatriots, buy the same products at the same price, and have these products work easily out of the box. This means that all products should work for all people. Accessibility should be built into all products.
Since reality is very far from this ideal situation, people with disabilities are suffering. Barriers created by inaccessible technology keep disabled people from their full potential as individuals, whether it is in the area of education, employment, or living independently. A widespread effort has been underway for years to break down these barriers. The primary tool in this effort has been legislation. The Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the recent revisions to Section 508 on Federal procurement standards all increase the obligations of manufacturers, service providers, government agencies, employers and educational institutions to provide better access. Still, progress has been slower than many people with disabilities had hoped.
The main problem with many computer products is that they are difficult or impossible to use by people with disabilities. People with vision impairments have an especially difficult time accessing the visual interface that characterizes Microsoft Windows and the applications that run under Windows.
Adaptive technology developers who care about the need to access this information have traditionally gone in two directions: screen readers and screen magnifiers that try to make the standard applications accessible and custom applications that provide an environment designed specifically for the person with a disability. Both types of solutions are important parts of providing access, although the first group is especially dependent on computer software companies to do their job.
Examining the track record of several different companies illustrates the varied responses to the issue of accessibility. Since Microsoft is the majority of the accessibility problem for people with disabilities, due to their near-monopoly in operating systems and applications that are relevant for employment, we'll explore Microsoft first and in greater depth. We'll also briefly examine IBM, AOL/Netscape and Sun.
"So you'll probably never accuse us of being altruistic. That's ok. We're not." - Quotation from a 1998 Microsoft ad.
Nobody can say it better than Microsoft. Microsoft's interest in accessibility has not been visibly driven by any sense of corporate responsibility. Accessibility is an imposed requirement that has only been taken seriously because of its potential impact on Microsoft's product sales. It would be logical to assume that without continued pressure, Microsoft will not continue to make significant accessibility efforts. A review of the history of this issue and Microsoft is in order.
At first, Microsoft was reluctant to take the issue of access seriously. Federal employees were worried about losing their jobs as agencies started moving from DOS to Windows in the late 80s and early 90s. There was talk of making complaints under Section 508, the law that stated that technology acquired by the federal government had to be accessible, but which was rarely enforced. Microsoft began to hear from disability advocates that there was a problem, but Microsoft didn't regard it as Microsoft's problem. After the completion of Windows 3.1, Microsoft assigned a senior developer to the role of liaison for the disability community. It dodged efforts to get it to do more to provide access, even though Microsoft was in the best position to do something about making its products accessible. Because it made the operating system, Microsoft also was in a position to make many of the applications made by third parties more accessible. However, Microsoft's original position was that access was the province of the small accessibility industry.
Under the pressure of a threatened boycott of Microsoft products, Microsoft relented and committed itself to improving access. It enlarged its staff and begins to develop accessibility technology. The main effort is based on a technology called Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA). MSAA would make it easier to get access to the information on what's on the screen. However, the solution was not strongly marketed to other commercial software developers, and has had little impact on access for software other than Microsoft's.
Although Microsoft made a stated commitment to MSAA, disability advocates quickly found out that accessibility was relegated to an optional feature for Microsoft products. After releasing Internet Explorer 3, the main Internet browser from Microsoft, with MSAA, Microsoft then left it out of Internet Explorer 4.0. This raised a storm of fury as blind users upgraded to IE 4 and found it didn't work. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced that with a crash effort that Microsoft's engineers manage to fix the IE 4 problem in 30 days. However, several months later, Microsoft's Accessibility personnel admit that IE 4 is still unusable for MSAA. Disability sources note that it took over nine months to get a fixed version of IE4. Nobody tells the chairman, and Microsoft continues to trumpet this amazing rescue to this day.
After the IE4 faux pas, Bill Gates elevated accessibility as a bigger corporate priority and doubles the staff dedicated to accessibility. However, shortly after the announcement of the doubling of staff, Microsoft discontinues free technical support to the accessibility industry. Small companies working on accessibility using MSAA would be given a limited amount of subsidized technical support. Those accessibility companies who are making custom products for the disabled under Windows were explicitly excluded from this subsidized support. If you weren't directly signed up for Microsoft's plan for access, you weren't going to get any help. The problem was that these companies weren't doing enough to sell Microsoft products: they were just trying to help people with disabilities.
Microsoft's relationship with the accessibility industry has been rocky. For years, Microsoft transferred responsibility for access problems to these vendors. Now that Microsoft is beginning to offer basic function access tools, vendors are very concerned that Microsoft is going to put them out of business. Because of Microsoft's monopoly position in operating systems and major business applications, its actions have a huge impact on the tiny vendors in the disability field.
Microsoft has a strong "Not Invented Here" syndrome, although often for powerful business reasons. Almost any technology standard that is not created by Microsoft is a potential threat to their business model. As we have seen from press coverage of the various trials, Microsoft actively tries to sabotage some of these competing technologies. Microsoft often will offer a competing standard and defend it, whether or not it meets the needs of the end consumers. Microsoft has tried to discourage the author's organization from supporting Arkenstone's speech synthesizer interface standard, SSIL, while not adding the functionality Arkenstone requested to the new Microsoft standard, SAPI. Microsoft jokingly offered to pay Arkenstone not to build a bridge between the standards to help SSIL users take advantage of the SAPI technology.
A prominent developer of screen readers also notes that most of Microsoft's work has been reinventing what he and his competitors have already developed. He notes that it's easier to use Microsoft's free technology, but he worries about depending on Microsoft for this core technology. Most heads of accessibility companies are concerned about Microsoft taking over their markets.
However, Microsoft’s road is a logical one in some respects. Almost all accessibility vendors acknowledge that Microsoft should fix many of the accessibility problems facing users today. The fact that Microsoft’s progress has been too slow on building accessibility into its operating systems and applications has increased the pressure on Microsoft to fix the problem. However, if Microsoft puts many accessibility vendors out of business, what will be the force keeping up the access technology?
Microsoft's efforts have had some positive impact. Even though MSAA has not turned out to be as beneficial as has been touted, Microsoft has been making significant progress. Microsoft, even though it could be doing more and better in accessibility, is doing more than almost all other technology companies. Here is a list of positive Microsoft actions:
Microsoft dedicates a great deal of its accessibility efforts to public relations. Its Accessibility personnel act as punching bags for the disability community, absorbing the anger and disappointment while staunchly defending Microsoft's point of view both publicly and privately.
Make no doubt about it, Microsoft's growth is due in large part to its single-minded dedication to commercial success. Microsoft's employees are imbued with a corporate culture dedicated to this success. Accessibility is important because it is now a requirement to continued commercial success. If accessibility weren't a governmental requirement, it would not get the attention it is now getting. This a reasonably cynical view, but I'm sure that the majority of accessibility advocates have come to this conclusion watching Microsoft's actions over the past ten years.
This point is important, because it has wide-reaching implications for the future of accessibility involving Microsoft. As a commercial company, Microsoft is always acting in Microsoft's interest, and rarely acts in the interests of disabled people when it is not to Microsoft's advantage. This issue mirrors the debate going on in our society about Microsoft: should Microsoft's tactics be condemned in using every weapon in its power to achieve dominance in its chosen field? Or should we let the market decide all?
IBM's approach to accessibility and corporate responsibility has been very different than Microsoft's. IBM has been a leader for many years in developing access technology and supporting the accessibility industry. IBM funded the development of its Screen Reader product for many years, including making a version for OS/2 when IBM was competing with Windows in the operating system arena. If OS/2 had won instead of Windows, access would probably be much better to employment-related computer technology. However, access has to follow the general market trends and OS/2 lost out to Windows. IBM has also developed a significant number of dedicated access products for people with different disabilities: IBM Home Page Reader for accessing the Internet by blind people, Speech Viewer for helping speech impaired children to learn how to talk, Thinkable for people with cognitive issues and so on.
IBM has also made significant efforts in the Java area, often in conjunction with Sun Microsystems, the inventor of Java. Lotus Software, formerly with a poor access track record, has made significant strides since coming under the IBM corporate umbrella.
In addition to developing its own products, IBM has actively supported technically and financially accessibility developers, such as Don Johnston, Cognitive Concepts and the author's nonprofit, Arkenstone. By doing so, IBM has helped bring out accessibility products for disabled consumer groups that might not otherwise been available. IBM's voice recognition and voice synthesis products are also widely used in the disability field.
AOL and Netscape, soon to merge, are both terrific examples of companies with terrible records of working on accessibility. This cannot be considered accidental, since they both have been made well aware of their failure to make progress on access.
Sun has been making a significant effort to make Java accessible, and contrasted to Microsoft, has made this effort earlier in the Java's life cycle. Whether this will make much of an impact on accessibility depends on the broader success of Java and the implications of Sun's recent court victory against Microsoft over Java.
There are many mechanisms for addressing the issues of encouraging Microsoft and other manufacturers to do a better job in accessibility. The first is to insist that the existing laws and regulations be enforced.
The new Section 508 governing Federal procurement allows individuals to sue the federal government to enforce its obligation to purchase only accessible electronic and information technology. During late 1998 and 1999, the Access Board is busy drafting regulations and standards to enforce this new law. The first step in this process has been the formation of the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee ("EITAAC"). The public can participate on many levels in this process, from subscribing to the EITAAC listserv to participating in subcommittee deliberations to attending the public hearings in Washington, D.C. The federal government will use its procurement power to decline to purchase products that are not accessible.
Another mechanism to work for change is to participate in the passage of new legislation. A handful of states have passed toughened accessibility laws and more states are considering these.
Microsoft has an obligation to do more. Legislation and its monopolies create both a legal and moral obligation to help disabled Americans. Not just with public relations and private apologies, but with measurable progress towards the usability of Microsoft's products by people with disabilities. Here are some specific suggestions for Microsoft:
Training is the number one issue for people with disabilities. In addition to learning the standard applications, they must also use accessibility tools. Microsoft needs to take responsibility to see that disabled people are successful in the use of Microsoft products, not to stop short because its MSAA efforts have made this success theoretically better. Microsoft has funded efforts to train seniors on PCs, and disabled people deserve the same support.
Microsoft has begun to make progress in this area, with national TV ads that feature a blind Microsoft employee. Microsoft also has to go further, ensuring that its professional training courses and products are accessible, so that disabled people have the opportunity for professional positions.
Microsoft's progress with access needs to be independently tracked by people who can strike a better balance between Microsoft's interests and the interests of consumers.
The quality of access to Windows and Microsoft applications is still lousy. Microsoft needs to avoid backtracking on access. Access can't be sacrificed again for commercial reasons.
Microsoft needs to end the policies and attitudes that generate so much hostility between it and the accessibility industry. This does not move the cause of accessibility forward.
Disability advocates need to step up the pressure on the many companies that have made no efforts whatsoever to meet their disability access obligations. Although Microsoft represents the biggest accessibility barriers, the fact that Windows is at least partially accessible has taken the heat off of many other companies. Testing of product releases for accessibility should become a standard part of the release process for major software packages and services, such as Web sites. Accessibility is too important to too many people to have it be ignored.
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