Microsoft Promotes Accessibility
by Curtis Chong

image of Curtis Chong

PHOTO/CAPTION: Curtis Chong

From the Editor: In mid-February Curtis Chong, Director of the NFB's Technology Department, took part in a meeting organized by Microsoft. Here is his report:

On February 19 and 20, 1998, Microsoft, a key player in the personal computer software industry, hosted two days of activity dealing specifically with the subject of accessibility by persons with disabilities to its many software products. The first day, called Accessibility Day, was a concentrated effort to educate Microsoft employees about the value of accessibility. Employees and guests, including advocates from the disabled community, heard from Bill Gates, Microsoft's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, who talked about the importance of accessibility in a speech which was widely aired throughout the company. Microsoft employees were educated through panel discussions and direct contact with vendors of accessibility-related software and disability-community advocates. The advocates were introduced to Microsoft's five-point plan for accessibility.

The second day, called Advocate Day, consisted of in-depth discussions between key Microsoft product developers, consumers, and independent software vendors of access technology. Microsoft revealed some of its plans for future Windows operating systems; advocates had an excellent opportunity to talk with key product developers; and Microsoft received some feedback which it perhaps did not expect.

These are the bare and unadorned facts. However, readers of the Braille Monitor know there is a great deal of history behind the two-day event. Ever since Windows began to achieve prominence in the operating system marketplace, the blind have been very concerned that we would, in effect, be relegated to the technological backwaters of society. Screen-access technology for the blind was working quite well with the Disk Operating System (DOS) and with many popular text-based programs such as WordPerfect, dBASE, and the like. Because of this technology it became possible for blind people (in the late '80's and early '90's) to perform a greater variety of jobs—particularly those in which the computer was used for most of the work day and for which hiring a sighted reader was cost-prohibitive. However, as more and more companies began adopting the Windows operating system and the graphical applications which were supposed to increase productivity and reduce training costs, blind employees found themselves in a position where advances in technology for their sighted peers meant less access and lower productivity for them.

When Windows was first released, Microsoft did little to allay the justifiable concerns that were expressed at the time. In fact, Microsoft was regarded by many of us as a large part of the problem. It was not until 1995, when Microsoft conducted its first Accessibility Summit, that it became clear to the most die-hard skeptic that perhaps the company really was taking some small steps to deal with the accessibility problem for Windows and graphical applications.

From the summer of 1995 until the fall of 1997, it appeared that things were proceeding in a positive direction. Microsoft released its Active Accessibility application programming interface (a way for access technology and application programs to communicate more easily) and began promoting this interface to its own employees and to other companies in the computer industry. Then, in the fall of 1997, Microsoft released Internet Explorer Version 4.0. Because this program could not be used by the blind—we were able to use Internet Explorer Version 3.02 quite nicely—a lot of people expressed sharp criticism of Microsoft for its failure to give proper attention to accessibility. All of the trust and good will that had been developed so painstakingly since 1995 seemed to evaporate, and overnight Microsoft became a target for frustration, criticism, and outright anger.

The company responded quickly by releasing Internet Explorer 4.01, but this newer release would not work with existing screen reading software because of a significant change made by Microsoft to the Active Accessibility component. It became clear that, unless significant changes were made to our screen-reading programs, we would not be using Internet Explorer Version 4 anytime soon.

When viewed in this context, it is easy to understand why it was highly desirable, from Microsoft's point of view, to sponsor a two-day accessibility event. To put it simply, its image within the community of the disabled—particularly the blind—was badly in need of repair.

Microsoft invited more than twenty individuals representing various constituencies within the disability community to the event. I myself attended, representing the National Federation of the Blind. Interestingly enough, of the more than twenty advocates attending the event, over a third were representing various aspects of the blindness field.

From my perspective there were four highlights of the two-day accessibility event at Microsoft:

1. The precedent-setting speech on accessibility by Microsoft

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Gates;

2. The unveiling to disability-community advocates of

Microsoft's five-point plan on accessibility;

3. The excellent opportunity for disabled advocates to engage

in frank discussions with key Microsoft product developers;

and

4. The unprecedented opportunity for Microsoft product

developers to meet with vendors of screen-access technology for the blind.

Bill Gates, Chairman and CEO of Microsoft, delivered a thirty-minute speech during Accessibility Day. The speech was presented live before several hundred employees, disability advocates, and other guests; and it was also viewed by more than a thousand other Microsoft employees, who were able to see and hear it using their desktop computers. Mr. Gates's presentation, which is a real first in access issues for the disabled, will doubtless be used by Microsoft supporters and detractors alike to demonstrate that the company either strongly supports or is only paying lip service to accessibility. The fact is that Mr. Gates did deliver a company-wide speech and that the sole topic of that speech was access to Microsoft products.

From my perspective what is perhaps most significant about Mr. Gates's remarks are his admissions that Microsoft (1) did not pay enough attention to the impact of the graphical user interface on the visually impaired and (2) took a step backward by releasing Internet Explorer Version 4.0 with fewer accessibility features than its predecessor, Version 3.02.

Mr. Gates made a couple of statements which may give credence to a more cynical interpretation of Microsoft's interest in accessibility. He said:

I think there's no doubt that legislation and regulations are going to be looking at these areas [accessibility]. We want to make sure we get out there with solutions way, way before that happens.

Saying that "accessibility is important to Microsoft," Gates summarized his remarks as follows:

And I think the basic message here is the one that's really at the core of what Microsoft believes in, and that's this idea that PC's will benefit everyone.

Mr. Gates alluded to Microsoft's new plan to deal with accessibility. The plan was discussed at a dinner meeting with the disability-community advocates. Here are the five major elements of the plan:

1. Enhance accessibility requirements in the Design for the

Windows Logo program.

2. Create an accessibility checklist for product groups.

3. Improve the accessibility of key products.

4. Establish an advisory council.

5. Allocate additional resources.

At this stage no one knows precisely how the plan will evolve. Advocates were told that the Microsoft Accessibility Team would be almost tripled in size and that, once a checklist was established, every single product review would deal with the question of accessibility. We were told that the position of Director of Accessibility would be established and that Greg Lowney, a long-time champion of accessibility issues within the Microsoft organization, would fill that position.

Advocates from the disability community were told about the product-access review boards which Microsoft was attempting to organize. We were told that a product-access review board had already been set up to review new releases of Microsoft software to determine their accessibility to blind persons or persons with low vision. Interestingly enough, none of the major blindness organizations were asked to participate on these boards. We later learned that the chairman of the blindness-product-access review Board was Mary Otten, a blind person working in the Washington, D.C., area. However, we could not learn the names of other Board participants. As it turned out, when Microsoft wanted to organize the blindness-product-access review board, it turned to Jamal Mazrui, who is a policy analyst for the National Council on Disability—a governmental agency which has made no secret of its desire to subsume separate and identifiable programs for the blind into the general rehabilitation system.

Microsoft representatives stated on more than one occasion that these review boards were neither organized nor controlled by Microsoft and were serving as independent entities in their own right. From my perspective Microsoft may have been well intentioned when it set about the task of creating the product-review boards, but it failed to understand and take into account the politics in the blind community. For one thing, its failure to solicit the participation of the major players within the blindness community only heightened the level of cynicism and mistrust toward the company. For another, its appointment of an employee of a largely discredited governmental agency will cast doubt upon the efficacy of the board. One cannot help wondering if the company will make similar grievous mistakes when it tries to organize its advisory council.

Turning to the second day of the event, Advocate day, we spent most of the time conducting serious, in-depth discussions with key product developers. We talked about future versions of Windows (Windows 98 and Windows/NT Version 5); future releases of Microsoft Office (word processing, spread sheet, and office-application development software); and Internet Explorer. Often we were told that it was difficult to retrofit what some people called "legacy code," but that programmers were working hard to solve the problems and issues we raised. In many instances we were told that, if we would just wait until 1999 or the year 2000, this or that problem would be taken care of in a future release. We heard about the development cycle and were told that a good idea—even if it were accepted today—could take as long as eighteen months to be turned into live code that would run on a user's personal computer.

Some of the plans in the works for future versions of Windows are worth mentioning here. If things go according to plan, Windows 98, which everyone expects to come out some time this year, will have a built-in screen magnifier and something called an Accessibility Settings Wizard (a way to simplify setting up the computer with some features that will make it more accessible). The next version of Windows/NT, probably Version 5, will have all of these features plus a basic speech-output screen reader and an on-screen keyboard capability.

Neither blind consumers nor the screen-access vendors for the blind were enthusiastic about the screen magnifier and speech-based screen reader. Companies such as Artic Technologies, which sells Magnum screen enlargement software, and AI Squared, maker of Zoomtext for DOS and Windows, expressed strong concern about the plan. Apparently there is a strong concern about Microsoft's encroaching on the disability market. Many of the advocates did not like the term "screen reader" when used to refer to what is actually a very limited-function talking utility which doesn't read the screen at all but receives its data through the Active Accessibility interface. It was clear, however, that despite what was being said, Microsoft's plans in this area were already well formed. I was left with the distinct impression that we were not going to cause any significant changes by the comments we made.

Disability-community advocates, many of them blind, made some pretty frank statements during the wrap-up session. A lot of people said that Microsoft had not done enough and had not produced concrete results as soon as it should have. Some people alluded to the Accessibility Summit, which took place more than two years ago and opined that things really hadn't changed much since then. As with the previous meeting, most people said that they were leaving with two distinct feelings: major frustration and very cautious optimism.

Before concluding this article, I think it would be worthwhile to try to convey my overall impression of the accessibility event at Microsoft. When I first went to Redmond, I was fully prepared to participate in a well-orchestrated public relations exercise in which Microsoft would put forward some of its ideas for accessibility and then gauge the reaction of key advocates in the disability community. Indeed Microsoft met all of my expectations in this regard.

Unfortunately, I did not get any answers to the very real problems of today. As of this writing Internet Explorer Version 4 still doesn't work with screen-access technology for the blind. Although we can use Microsoft Word to write basic text and even to perform spell checking, the fact is that Word is still not our word processor of choice when compared to some of the older software we used in years gone by and sometimes continue to use. Unfortunately every new Microsoft application we hear about is more likely to be a barrier to access than something exciting and worthwhile.

Of course all is not gloom and doom on the Microsoft front. Although it is not as much as many of us might like, some real progress has been made within the company to further the accessibility agenda. As I hope I have explained in this report, recognition of the importance of accessibility has moved up the corporate hierarchy. The company now has a formal plan and a higher level position dedicated to promoting accessibility efforts; it is not a vice presidential position, but it is better than anything that the company has had before. Key products are planned to be more accessible—if we can wait for a couple of years. Bill Gates himself has underscored the importance of accessibility to Microsoft products. And blind people today can and do use Windows 95.

From the perspective of the blind person struggling with today's software to keep a job, this is scant comfort. What comes to mind is the age-old question, "Oh Lord, how much longer must we wait?" If the Microsoft Accessibility and Advocate Days of February 19 and 20 are an indication, we will have to wait for another couple of years at least before the average blind computer user sees any real progress.