These days it seems more voices are adding to a chorus of death to the third party screen reader. Apple fueled a universal hope in the blindness community that if one company could make their products talk straight out of the box, so could the rest of the mainstream. Paying over a thousand dollars for a commercial screen reader is always a daunting prospect, but reducing screen reading choices to a free built-in solution could create its own grim reality.
The current built-in screen readers are insufficient for the blind professional. Apple’s Voiceover, an excellent choice for core functionality, does not grant blind professionals the access to, or flexibility with, a wide range of enterprise products required in the workplace. Actually, these core screen readers sometimes have difficulty with day-to-day tasks. Read Chris Hofstader’s frustrations with OSX.
Microsoft is hardly better. Though they are not last in accessibility, it would be an exaggeration to suggest Narrator has evolved to the point of self-sufficiency. Microsoft may or may not improve on the built-in screen reader in Windows 10. Microsoft may or may not fully incorporate Window Eyes into their operating system, but the blind professional needs to be productive today, not tomorrow.
The Cost of Free Products
Have you read Tim Connell’s take on the cost of free products on the NFB’s Braille Monitor? It’s a thought-provoking piece suggesting free assistive technology is not always better and that a super market approach may sacrifice the level of detail and response only smaller specialists can afford. Read the article in its entirety so you can decide for yourself if my own points are fair or full of bologna.
Here’s an excerpt of the article:
“A growing number of people in the print-disability field are not happy with the status quo and with the fact that specialist products are expensive and not available to all. The prospect of cheap or free products has become the goal that many individuals as well as some agencies are now supporting. When I started to think about this subject, my first question was, “Who is going to support an argument against free products?” “Not many people” is the answer. So perhaps the days of specialist developers and vendors really are numbered. In a world where many problems still exist, particularly in employment, some people need to assign blame and prefer to view the specialist providers as the problem. The cost of a commercial screen reader is viewed as the problem, and getting something free would help solve that problem. However, I keep returning to the supermarket analogy and have come to the conclusion that those small steps of change that occur incrementally mean we may not know what has been lost till it is too late. We may not really be aware of the change that is currently underway in the AT market. The point that is being missed is that it is not the cost of the product that should be our focus, but the ability of the product to fully meet the needs of each individual. Does a keen fisherman get all of his fishing gear at Kmart, or does he go to a fishing gear specialist? Do elite athletes buy all their sporting gear from Target, or do they go to specialist suppliers? Is price going to be the driver to make people successful, or is it getting the best possible solutions that will determine whether people can achieve their potential?”
A few critiques
First, Damn political correctness. I didn’t realize blind people were now part of the “print disability” community. When did the equally dreadful “visually challenged” fall out of style? I can’t keep up!
Sorry, I digress.
Second, while free or cheap is certainly desired among blind professionals, it’s hardly unique to the blindness community. Who doesn’t like a good deal, and in a market where it costs hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to read a screen, scan a book, and read the Braille, it’s more than fair to ask why manufacturers continue to peddle prices that are rational for government agencies but completely out of step with reality for the individual consumer?
Third, yes, I am guilty of believing screen reading technology ought to be available to all. The assistive technology industry cannot claim small market arguments to justify exorbitant prices and then turn around with prices only accessible to an even smaller piece of that market. Surely the core products and business models have evolved to a point where companies can drop prices and still enjoy a healthy profit.
Next, Connell’s argument about our need to assign blame is perplexing. Is it the author’s claim that consumers do not have the right to complain when they do not get a return on their investment? He makes the point that we should not judge a product by how much it costs, but rather, by how fully it is meeting our needs. From where I’m sitting, and gauging by the comments accompanying my complaint against Freedom Scientific, the so-called specialists are not fully meeting the needs of the blind professional. Surely the elite athlete has the right to complain when the specialty store fails to produce adequate equipment.
Blind professionals recognize the value of the specialist but equally recognize the specialists too often overlook the value of their customers. Despite the prices, blind customers are still paying for the products, and it is not unreasonable to raise expectations for the amount of productivity you get out of that investment.
While the cost of certain blindness apps can sometimes be higher than usual, people still purchase the products because they fulfill a need. You don’t have to look far beyond the KNFB Reader app to prove the blind will pay if the app is solid.
To be fair, there is a uniqueness to the assistive technology arrangement. The industry does not pitch customers. They pitch to agencies with the capacity to meet market prices, and the agencies are too bureaucratic to demand better deals.
By now you may’ve gotten the impression I thought Connell’s article was outrageous. Not so. His overarching argument that pricing should be second to the best solutions could be painting too simplistic a picture of the status quo, but on the whole, Connell makes some valid points we should consider before deciding the third party screen reader should die.
If the industry is indeed drifting toward a single, built-in solution, I worry about what that means for stability. How many Voiceover and Braille glitches persist in iOS 8? How much attention has Microsoft given Narrator in its regular updates to Windows 8 and later in 8.1? Apple and Microsoft feature excellent accessibility lines, but these teams can only respond to what their products offer today. They are not in the position to execute accessibility bug fixes overnight.
Perhaps there’s comfort in the devil we know? JAWS can be nerve-wracking. Professionals want to squeeze advanced features out of the consumer-friendly System Access. Window Eyes is…Well, it’s Window Eyes. I mean no insult. I’m just too much of a simpleton to understand their command logic, and NVDA always seems to be on the verge of dying if they don’t generate enough donations, but by golly, there’s something to be said for on-the-fly choices when one application can work around an accessibility issue better than the others. I believe I would have already switched to a Mac if there was a logical alternative to Voiceover, which is extraordinary on iOS but worthy of a few offensive gestures on OSX.
Screen readers have generally reached a plateau. This is not because there is nothing else that can be done to make screen readers better. It’s because manufacturers are not devoting as much creative thinking to adapting their product to emerging apps.
Am I selling out after railing against my perceived evils of certain companies? I like to do my tiny part to keep them accountable, but I am always going to fall on the side of choice for the blind professional who needs more than one option to get things done.
Perhaps the Freedom Scientifics of the world are also betting Apple and Microsoft will soon dominate the screen reading market, rendering their solution irrelevant. Maybe that’s the best explanation for the general plateau we’re experiencing. If so, we may be in for a rough ride.
The current screen reader landscape could be far better than what it is. Yet, competition creates choice, and choice makes for greater productivity. Microsoft has had ample time to make something extraordinary happen with Windows 8. Maybe something will surprise us in Windows 10 under the new CEO, but I’m not holding my breath. Even if we are pleasantly shocked, I will still consider it a really good thing if customers can continue enjoying a diverse market to get their work done as sighted peers. Whatever Mr. Connell may believe, the blind do appreciate and pay for good products.
Okay, let me have it. If you think built-in screen readers and universal accessibility is preferable to the third party screen reader we love to hate, let me know about it in the comments!