From the Technology Department Director's Mail Basket
From the Editor: As a rather recent and still more or less unwilling Windows 95 user, I do my share (probably more than my share) of complaining about Windows 95, JAWS for Windows (JFW), Internet Explorer, and the rest of the graphical complications to the lives of blind computer users. Dr. Peter Scialli's article (see the previous story) gives me hope that the advances being made in speech access to the graphical user interface will eventually trickle down to computer users like me. Then I read correspondence like the following exchange between Tracy Carcione, a computer user in New York, and Curtis Chong, Director of the NFB's Technology Department and President of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, and I am reminded that the remaining problems are very real and their impact on the lives of many computer users is always frustrating and often frightening. What follows is a pair of e-mail messages between Mrs. Carcione and Mr. Chong:
From: Tracy Carcione
To: Curtis Chong
Date: Wednesday, February 18, 1998
Hope you're settling in well in Baltimore. From the Monitor it looks like you're keeping plenty busy. Hope you're enjoying it.
I want to harass you in your capacity as President of the computer science division and to express my frustration with Windows. As you may recall, I tried to switch to Windows in the fall. It was a bust, and I'm still on OS/2, thank goodness. JFW sort of worked with the mainframe and not at all with either of the e-mail packages we tried.
Other software I've tried has had even less success. So why do we of the CS Division keep patting Henter-Joyce on the head as though they were doing a good job? I was hopeful about the switch from talking to Steve Jacobson and attending CS meetings where people talked about how well things were working for them, but it wasn't that way for me.
Possibly it would work if we hired a consultant to come in and customize JFW, but there are no guarantees. And why should that be necessary? When my boss buys software, she installs it on her machine, and off she goes. She might have to call Customer Service once or get a little help from a co-worker to learn the system, but she sure as heck doesn't have to hire a consultant to make the stuff work or spend hours on the phone with Customer Service as I do.
Why do we as blind people put up with this nonsense? If so-called access software doesn't work reasonably well with every application a person has, then it's a problem for that person.
Say I have five applications I need in order to do my job:
mainframe connection, word processing, e-mail, online manuals, and scheduling/project management software. Say the access software works well with one or two, sort of works with one or two more, and does not work at all with what's left. That seriously affects my ability to do my job. Depending on which software it works with, I may or may not be able to do my job at all. I've been thinking about looking for another job, but, when I look in the paper, 90 percent of the jobs advertised involve Windows in some way, and it's a good bet that even the strictly mainframe jobs involve Windows to connect to the Network. I feel very nervous going to a job interview in which, when the prospective boss asks me how I'll be able to connect to their system, I have to say that it depends what kind of connection they use, and maybe I can't connect at all.
For instance, there was an opening in another department for which I was qualified, except that the only connection to the system was through Netscape for security reasons, so I didn't even bother to apply.
I know you know this whole song well, but what can we do about it? Are we harassing Netscape to make Netscape Navigator accessible? Can we push Microsoft any harder? Can R&D invent something like Speaqualizer for Windows? Can we push the access software guys to do a better job? Right now I totally agree with a friend of mine who says, "If you have a lot of time to do something and you don't care if it looks pretty, then use Windows; otherwise, stick to DOS." But there's less and less in DOS, and Windows is still not very accessible, at least not with what I need to run, which is what matters to me.
Thanks for listening. Let me know if there's some action I can take.
From: Curtis Chong
To: Tracy Carcione
Date: February 22, 1998=20
I am glad that you took the time to write this note. It raises some very interesting points, and it continues to remind me that all is not sweetness and light in the computer worldeven though I would like to think that things have improved.
Where to begin? First, I would say that, if anyone gets the notion that we in the computer science division in particular and in the Federation in general endorse JAWS for Windows as the best screen-access system for Windows 95, he or she should put that notion aside immediately. As Richard Ring and I constantly say to anyone who asks, there is no one best program for anything. The key is to discover the problem which is being addressed and to come up with the best possible solution for it. Sometimes the solution involves JAWS for Windows. At other times it involves another screen reader.
Mr. Ring and I have often said that it would be nice (but not really practical) for blind people to have access to all of the screen readers and Web browsers available because certain software works better in one situation while other software works better in another. For example, while JAWS for Windows works quite well with some e-mail clients (e.g., Eudora or Microsoft Internet Mail), it does not work as well as Artic WinVision 97 when it comes to using Internet Explorer Version 3.02. Just because JAWS for Windows appears to be the most popular program today for Windows access, this does not imply that it is the best program for everyone.
Regarding mainframe connectivity, I know that Steve Jacobson has made considerable progress in this area. While JAWS for Windows (or any other Windows screen reader) may not provide the same high-quality access that you and I both enjoyed with IBM's mainframe communication software, OS/2, and Screen Reader/2, the fact is that blind people can access the mainframe, using a 3270 terminal-emulation package, through Windows 95. The access may not be everything we want and we may have to use a different emulation package than our sighted colleagues, but there is a time when we, as blind employees, must make unpleasant choices. Would you want to be the last OS/2 user in your shop? If you were, then who would support you? Unpleasant as it is to contemplate, the day will come when you will have to switch to Windows 95 (and possibly NT), and, though I personally deplore the circumstances which make this necessary, I recognize the necessity of being flexible in today's high-speed computer age.
Regarding a Speaqualizer for the graphical user interface, in point of fact the Federation's Research and Development Committee is giving this some very serious consideration. Dr. Michael Gosse and I have been looking into the work being done by Dolphin Systems in the United Kingdom to see if the ideas they have tried with Windows and their HAL screen-reading program really work. According to Dolphin, they analyze the actual screen image to determine what is going on instead of intercepting Windows calls which write text and other information to the screen. The down side to this approach appears to be that, while HAL works well with a specific set of applications, it tends to fall down when it comes to generalized access to software for which it has not been configured. Suffice it to say, this will be a large project that will not result in any immediate solutions.
You express some frustration about the fact that we, as blind people, require the services of technical consultants to a greater degree than our sighted counterparts. Yes, I am afraid you are correct. In order to solve our problems in the best possible manner, we often require (but cannot get) technical consultants to configure our systems so that we can use them with the highest degree of efficiency.
Training is another frustration. As we all know, much of the training that people receive for Windows-related software is oriented to the use of the mouse. We are often advised to "point there," "click on this or that item," and to "drag and drop objects." Little of the training available to the general community focuses on the use of the keyboard to execute tasks. While we do have some options in this area, we must always seek alternative ways to accomplish the same tasks which our sighted peers take for granted.
Does all of this mean that we really can't do our jobs? Not necessarily. It does mean that we must try to solve the problem on as many fronts as possible. On the technology front we must try to find the best screen-reading software we can while, at the same time, pushing the large players like Microsoft and the Lotus Corporation to make their application software compatible with the technology we must use to accomplish our jobs.
We must also not forget the basic skills of blindness, which we must use to get along in the world. These basic skills often come in handy when we need to run a piece of software that doesn't work with our access technology. If we are lucky, most of what we need to do with the computer can be done independently without sighted assistance. If not, unfortunately, some of us will become casualties in the never-ending struggle to survive in this technological age.
As blind computer users we often need to figure out ways to get the same work done with different software and approaches.
For example, the job you considered applying for, in which Netscape was an issue, might have been a good possibility for you if your employer had been willing to let you use Microsoft Internet Explorer instead.
When I worked at American Express, everybody else used Microsoft Word or Lotus Smart Suite. Although I used these programs when it was absolutely necessary, I did a lot of my original composition with good old WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS. As long as it didn't interfere with the job, nobody really cared, and I got the work done in a highly productive manner.
As far as Netscape itself is concerned, I know that Henter-Joyce has done some work to make it more usable in the Windows 95 environment. I myself have had a few frustrating discussions with officials of Netscape. The problem is finding the right contact and picking the battles that should be fought. We can't beat on every company, and we can't expect to win every battle. Ultimately we must win the war of access technology or we will be relegated to the backwaters of society. But we will never eliminate the need to use alternative techniques and strategies.
At this year's NFB convention we will be conducting a Windows 95 seminar. If you haven't had a chance to read one of the better books written to teach the blind about Windows 95, you may find the seminar of interest. The overall theme of the seminar is that blind people can use Windows 95--often with tremendous ease and efficiency.
On a more optimistic note, you will be interested to know that last week others in the disability community and I had a two-day meeting with representatives of Microsoft. We discussed accessibility, changes to future versions of Windows, and Windows-based applications, and Microsoft's over-all commitment to accessibility. We heard from Bill Gates himself. Mr. Gates has expressed a stronger commitment than ever before to ensuring that Microsoft software is accessible. I would say that I left the meeting with more than a little frustration and just a bit of cautious optimism.
You asked what you could do to help. Here are a few ideas. First, if you are having problems making a screen reader work with a particular program, write a letter to the screen reader vendor and send me a copy. If you are trying to make a mainstream commercial package work with a screen reader and the problem appears to be with the commercial package, write a letter to the company which develops and markets the software expressing your frustration, and send me a copy. Share your knowledge with other blind people. Tell them what works for you and what doesn't. Finally, keep writing to me. I appreciate hearing from you, and, if I have any answers, I will share them with you.