Braille Monitor                                             April 2015

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Accessibility at Microsoft
More Challenges than Victories

by Curtis Chong

Curtis Chong demonstrating tech at 2015 Alabama state conventionFrom the Editor: Curtis Chong is the president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, and in this capacity he is on the frontline when it comes to hearing about technical problems and being expected to offer some fix, work around, or political way to address problems that keep blind people from being as productive as they must in order to compete. Because most of the desktop and laptop market is dominated by Microsoft products, and because Microsoft has had more experience in dealing with accessibility issues than any other company, it is not surprising that the president of the computer science division hears frequently about user frustrations, lost jobs, and opportunities never pursued.

Although we are currently engaged with Microsoft in a dialogue expected to result in some advances in accessibility, this article is appropriate in expressing the frustration that members and nonmembers alike have when they try to use products that are essential at home, at school, and in the places they work. Here is what Curtis has to say:

There can be little doubt that Microsoft products are widely used today in almost every aspect of life. The majority of employers in this country require their employees to use programs from Microsoft (especially programs that are part of Microsoft Office) to accomplish the tasks they perform every day such as sending and receiving email, creating and editing documents, administering databases, managing projects, and so on. At home many people have personal computers that run the Microsoft Windows operating system and possibly Microsoft Office. At my doctor's office I cannot avoid the sound of the mouse clicking as my doctor reviews my medical chart using a computer powered by Microsoft Windows. While computers made by Apple arguably are gaining market share, Microsoft programs continue to maintain a highly visible presence in our lives. For those of us who are blind, access to Microsoft products is not just something that we would like to have. Rather, full nonvisual access to Microsoft products is essential if we are to have any hope of being able to compete in today's technology-driven labor market, let alone maintain parity with our sighted neighbors at home.

For more than two decades the Microsoft Corporation has had a team of individuals responsible for promoting and assuring the accessibility of its various products to people with disabilities, including the blind. You might assume, therefore, that after more than twenty years of effort, Microsoft would stand out as a leader in the world of accessible software and that all (or at least most) of the programs it sells would be accessible to and usable by the blind. If so, you would be wrong! After twenty years of effort, Microsoft's accessibility team is still unable to serve as a gatekeeper to prevent Microsoft from releasing blatantly inaccessible products.

The frustrating reality is that the accessibility effort within the Microsoft organization has not been given the power and influence it must have if the goal of ubiquitous accessibility is ever to be achieved. In other words a Microsoft product is accessible today—not because it is required to be so; it is accessible because the accessibility team was able to persuade a specific product group to do what is necessary to make its product work for people with disabilities.

Today only a small percentage of Microsoft products are regarded by the blind as comfortable and intuitive to use. Examples include Windows Explorer (referred to as File Explorer in Windows 8), most of the Microsoft Office Suite, Internet Explorer, and several (but not all) functions of the Windows operating system. Even for these supposedly accessible programs, accessibility and efficiency have deteriorated as newer versions of software are released. Consequently, whenever we who are blind hear about a new Microsoft product, we feel a certain amount of skepticism about the ability of that product to work with our screen-access technology and are pleasantly surprised if, in fact, the product turns out to work for us.

Below are seven examples of how Microsoft has fallen short of what seem like very realistic accessibility goals. As you consider these examples, bear in mind that this list represents a tiny fraction of the scope of the problem and that well over 80 percent of Microsoft products remain inaccessible to nonvisual users.

Year after year, the National Federation of the Blind and the Microsoft Accessibility Team engage in active and ongoing communication, and year after year, we have communicated our frustrations and concerns to this team. I and other leaders of the NFB in Computer Science have met at many national conventions with Rob Sinclair, the head of Microsoft's accessibility team. Although our meetings are very positive and our relationship with Mr. Sinclair extremely collegial, the reality is that we see far more accessibility challenges with Microsoft products than victories. Perhaps this is because, at Microsoft (as with too many other companies), accessibility continues to be a matter of education and persuasion and not something that everyone within the company is required to achieve. How different the situation would be if Microsoft had in place a policy which required accessibility instead of merely encouraging it.

As Microsoft products move from the desktop to the cloud and as its corporate customers move in this same direction, it is vital that nonvisual users be able to move with them; our jobs and our independence demand it. Now, the $64,000 question is, how can we get Microsoft to deliver ubiquitous accessibility and usability to everyone—including the blind?

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