Braille Monitor                                             October 2014

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Free Global Access for the Blind to the Computer

by Michael Curran

Michael CurranFrom the Editor: Nonvisual Desktop Access (NVDA) is a popular screen-reading program available to the blind without charge but with the request that we donate to its continued development. The NFB has assisted in its funding, but even a little from each user will help substantially in the ongoing development and maintenance of the product.

Attempts to lower the cost of screen-reading solutions are not new, but few of them have been as popular as this program, and the developers are committed to see that their work continues to make NVDA a robust product and to investigate other areas in which expansion will help in our access. Here is what Michael Curran said on the morning of July 6 at the 2014 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind:

Thank you, everybody, thank you for having me. The NVDA screen-reading software is changing the lives of blind and vision-impaired people across the globe by providing them a free alternative to commercial screen readers that may be either too expensive or not available in their location or language. It is enabling these people independently to use computers to produce written content; read news; socialize; shop and bank online; and, most important, participate actively in education and employment. It is developed by users, for users. It is used by both the young and old; it's used at home, at school, at university, at the workplace, and on the go. It supports over forty languages, and it can be run portably without the need to install it. NVDA is open source software. We have received contributions of code documentation and translations from over 140 people across the world. NVDA is downloaded roughly 60,000 times per release, with over 17,000 users depending on the product every day, spanning over 160 countries. Since NVDA is free for anyone, the greatest impact is for people living in developing countries, where it is often impossible to access a commercial screen-reader. However, even in the developed world, NVDA is having a significant impact. The second-highest country for NVDA use is the United States, suggesting that even here there are people for whom NVDA is a necessity due to the prohibitive cost of other products.

Over the past several years we have continued to strive to ensure that NVDA is a fully featured solution, not only for those who have no other option, but also for those who simply like choice. For anyone who hasn't looked at NVDA in the last two years or so, some of the major changes and improvements have been a repackaged download allowing you to install or create a portable copy (all from one file); automatic updates, ensuring that you have the latest and greatest NVDA when it becomes available; support for NVDA add-ons, allowing you to add optional features created by others in the community; support for Asian character input and improved support for reading right-to-left languages such as Arabic; support for Microsoft PowerPoint, allowing you both to read and to edit PowerPoint presentations (special thanks go to the NFB and several other blindness agencies for contributing financially to this project); Microsoft Word enhancements, including support for form fields and revisions and comments; and a configurations profile manager, allowing you to create and switch between multiple configurations for different applications or situations. Other developments have included support for touchscreens on Windows 8; computer Braille input; support for many more Braille displays; customization of keyboard, Braille display, and touch commands; enhancements and fixes to webpage and PDF content; stability fixes; and much more.

As a small taste of what's coming for the next release of NVDA, some enhancements you can look forward to, particularly with Microsoft Office are support for the Outlook Calendar; less verbose reading in the Outlook inbox and other message lists; commands to read the current comment in Microsoft Word and Excel; Microsoft-Word-specific enhancements, including reporting of paragraph indenting, distance from the left edge when pressing tab, feedback in speech and Braille for most formatting shortcut keys (bold, italic, underline, etc.); automatic column- and row-header reading for tables where the author has specified headers compatible with JAWS; improved automatic column- and row-header reading in Excel, including setting headings for multiple regions, and per worksheet storage, again compatible with JAWS. Some other features that should be available in the not-too-distant future are improved support for rich-text editing in web browsers, further enhancing the accessibility of products such as GoogleDocs, Office 365, and other content editors; and access to complex math equations in web browsers and Microsoft Office via Design Sciences MathPlath Alpha, allowing for meaningful navigation within equations, with feedback in both speech and Braille.

In conversations almost ten years ago my close friend James Tay and I talked about the possibility of a fully featured screen reader for Windows. Due to the high cost of commercial products, there was unfortunately a fair amount of illegal use of the existing commercial products. Given the importance of access to computers, it was difficult for many to resist doing this. However, both of us realized that, in addition to the obvious legal and ethical reasons against software piracy, this approach simply ignores the underlying problem of screen reader cost and availability. Blind people, regardless of their economic status, should not have to break the law just to be able to use computers and gain independence. [Applause]

The idea of a free screen reader was not new. There were several free screen readers for Lenox, and Apple at that time was introducing VoiceOver for the Mac. There were even some free options for Windows, but at that time they were mostly limited or abandoned. Another group had a similar idea to ours, but their project never seemed to get off the ground.

In April of 2006, while just out of university and also out of a job, I decided to start working on the NVDA screen-reader software. I certainly wasn't the best programmer around, but previous life experience and participation in Blind Citizens Australia taught me that, if you want or need something, someone has got to start it sometime. Although perhaps a little skeptical about the chance of success at first, James Tay joined me on the project in July of that year, and together we have worked as the lead developers on the project for the last eight years. There were many reasons why we developed NVDA as a free and open source project. The first was because this enforced the ideal that it should always be freely available to anyone who needs it. Second, based on our previous experience with open source software, we knew that a project of this size and complexity could really benefit from input and contributions from the community. Finally, we believed that for too long screen reading techniques had been locked up in the proprietary world. Each time a new screen reader project was started, programmers had to reinvent the wheel. There was no reference, no baseline from which to start, and NVDA would be a chance to open this up and allow the blind and visually impaired community to learn and access from code knowledge and techniques that help them access computers each and every day. [Applause]

Although we understood well the issues around screen reader costs for ourselves and for others in situations similar to our own, we did not appreciate at first just how much more of an impact NVDA would make on the blind in developing or non-English-speaking countries. In these countries commercial screen readers can be up to four times the price that we are used to, and sometimes the commercial screen readers are outdated or just not available in that language. This further spurred our efforts and led to a framework for translating NVDA into any language by anyone so that everyone, regardless of language, can benefit from access to computers.

We realized it was now imperative that we put in place an infrastructure to ensure NVDA's long-term continuation. In 2007 James Tay, several other blind people, and I founded NV Access, an Australian-based nonprofit organization, to develop and promote NVDA. NV Access raises funds through grants, donations, contracts, and potentially other avenues in the future. Among other things NV Access employs us to work full-time on the project, provides the technical infrastructure for the website and other online services, and allows us to offer related services such as support and consulting. NVDA is now a world-renowned screen reader used by tens of thousands, but its impact reaches far beyond the direct benefits to its users. It has helped to change the landscape of an industry where fully featured free or low-cost products were previously considered an unrealistic dream. It has provided greater competition in the assistive technology space, thus driving continued development and innovation. Both NVDA and NV Access have played a continuing part in pushing the accessibility industry forward, especially in the area of web accessibility. Because NVDA is free and unrestricted, more developers are able to test with a screen reader when implementing accessibility into their products, lowering even more barriers to accessibility. All of this ensures the importance and relevance of our work now and into the future, even despite the emergence of other free options such as Window-Eyes for users of Microsoft Office.

Today NV Access still continues actively to develop NVDA. With the rapid pace of technology developments we must continually update NVDA to ensure compatibility with the latest versions of Windows or other popular third-party applications. Aside from NVDA development we are also focusing on several other areas in order to increase awareness and uptake for those who truly need it. In order to achieve our mission, NV Access needs to grow as a business and be sustainable into the future. Also we need to grow the ecosystem of the products and services around NVDA. Thanks to a grant from the Nippon Foundation, we have recently hired a general manager, who is focusing specifically on these issues.

The lack of official training material and technical support is something that many people have identified as a barrier to NVDA uptake. We recognize the importance of this and are working towards a solution. The hope is first to have a set of official text-based training materials in the not-too-distant future with the aim of also putting into place a certification system around this training to ensure quality from those offering training in their local communities. Ensuring the existence of training will allow the NVDA user to work more effectively with the product, get beginning users up to speed faster, and also quash a fair bit of ignorance around NVDA's current capabilities. We are also seeking to partner with various blindness agencies, rehabilitation organizations, and companies, including organizations here in the US, who could offer end-user technical support to NVDA users in their own communities and around the world. We already have a corporate support model in place which allows these organizations to receive second-level technical support, training, or custom development from NV Access for a monthly fee.

Another major barrier to uptake is of course the speech. NVDA comes with the eSpeak speech synthesizer built in. It's extremely responsive and can speak in many languages. I myself use eSpeak all the time, and many others also do, especially in developing countries where other synthesizers are not available. However, we are very much aware of the reluctance of those who hesitate to use eSpeak apparently due to its robotic or metallic nature. Perhaps the most popular speech synthesizer among screen reader users is ETI Eloquence from Nuance. IBM also incorporated the same engine in their IBM text-to-speech product. Unfortunately we have been unable to license this for NVDA, despite several attempts to negotiate with both Nuance and IBM. Furthermore, both products are considered end-of-life. Nuance continues to wholesale Eloquence but does not really provide support or updates, while IBM text-to-speech can no longer be purchased at all. Perhaps more unfortunately we are aware of a significant number of users who choose to use the synthesizers illegally. NV Access certainly does not condone this process. One potential solution we are pursuing is attempting to restart research into formant synthesis by developing a prototype flat synthesizer. If successful, it could be a replacement for those who cannot adapt to eSpeak but have been comfortable with the sound of eloquence and DECtalk. Like NVDA it is being developed as open source software, ensuring that others can contribute and that the future of the product is not dependent on just one company. The prototype synthesizer is already available in English and can be found on our extra voices webpage under the name of NV Speech Player.

The aim of NV Access has always been to lower the economic and social barriers associated with accessing information technology for people who are blind or vision impaired. The company is thus dedicated to the ideal that accessibility and equitable access are a right and should be available to all no matter their language, location, or economic status. NV Access upholds this ideal through its continual commitment to keep NVDA freely available to all blind and visually impaired people who need it; however, in order to achieve this ideal, the blindness community must work together. We welcome open and candid discussion with all in the blindness community, including the NFB, on ways we can ensure NVDA's continuation. There are still many blind people in the US and elsewhere who don't have access to computers or the Internet for lack of screen readers. In the twenty-first century for some this means the inability to participate equally in education, the inability to get a job, or the inability simply to socialize. We believe that everybody, blind or not, has a duty and a right to contribute to society in some way. We implore organizations such as the NFB to ensure that all blind people have the necessary tools to do so. Let us also make sure that at least some of these tools are owned and controlled by the blindness community.

Access to technology is essential, and we as blind people must play a significant part in shaping the future of that access. I'd like to thank our current primary sponsors, who include Adobe, the Nippon Foundation, and Google. I also want to acknowledge past support from Microsoft, and especially past support from Mozilla, with whom we share many values. Finally I'd like to think the NFB for the opportunity to speak today and for your support of the NVDA project. You can find out more about NDDA or NV Access or download a copy of NVDA from <>. Thank you.

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