Braille Monitor                                    February 2018

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Why Human Readers are No Substitute for Accessible Software

by Sabra Ewing

Sabra EwingFrom the Editor: Sabra Ewing is a newly graduated college student looking for a job. She is a person who has many interests, among them universal design, inclusive education, canine nutrition, and the Tutor monarchy.

On a number of our lists, especially those frequented by students and computer enthusiasts, there is a long-running discussion about the way inaccessible software can keep a blind person from achieving his or her goals. In these discussions the use of a human reader has been suggested, and a surprising number of respondents have rejected the idea. Some say that a human reader is too expensive, too limiting, and too inconvenient. Some go further and suggest that using a human reader is actually selling out by failing to press immediately for accessibility, which is our right as blind people. Many of us have suggested that the human reader is a far better solution than not taking a class or the abandonment of a career goal. While the human reader is no long-term substitute, we should consider using one rather than being thwarted by technology. Some of us who have used human readers for decades even assert there are times when using the eyes and the brains of human beings is superior to technology, though all of us hope that one day technology will be good enough that we will no longer need to rely on someone else in working efficiently with print. At a minimum, those who consider using a human reader believe it should be another tool in our toolbox.

Sabra believes this is bad advice, and she asked me whether there was a place in the Braille Monitor for dissenting opinions. I assured her that there was, so here is what she has to say about the inadequacy of using a human reader to deal with inaccessible technology:

The Accessible Instructional Materials Act creates guidelines for the use of accessible, education-based electronic content. The act also has a provision for alternate equal access that allows schools to provide access through other means when the current materials are not sufficient. Both school officials and blind people believe that a human reader can serve as alternative access. They fail to realize that use of a human reader creates diminished access by distorting cause and affect relationships in virtual environments, demanding impractical knowledge of a visual interface, and promoting dependence and distortion throughout the data analysis process.

Let us imagine that a district serving a blind student is short of mobility instructors. They cannot provide one for this student, but they have the perfect solution. An instructor working with someone else will call the student, who will listen as she describes pertinent features of the lesson like intersections, safe street crossings, and proper cane technique. As the student listens, he will mentally participate in the lesson. Okay, so maybe it isn’t the perfect solution, but schools do a similar thing to blind students by providing a reader in place of accessible software. A virtual environment has cause and effect relationships just like a physical one. When you press a button or move to another area on the screen, the environment changes. When you enter data, the environment will respond. Because the process is very interactive, allowing a human reader to control software for a blind student will hinder that person’s learning, similar to incomplete participation in a physical environment.

Some might argue that schools could minimize this effect by having the reader serve as a proxy, following the student’s exact instructions from the beginning of software activation down to the last mouse click. The problem is that a blind student interfaces with the computer nonvisually. The student would have difficulty telling a reader how to locate and click on an envelope or green arrow for example. Many blind students process information in such a way that they could not direct a reader to such icons on a constantly changing screen. Then there is the meaning. You can explain to a blind student that an envelope is what you click on to check your email and that a green arrow means next or forward like a green light, but this process could potentially apply to every icon. For someone who has always used a screen reader, it is not very intuitive or practical. The school should encourage the student to focus on blindness skills that take less effort and allow more independence instead of asking them to master a skill that would take years of study and leave them dependent on a reader.

One more problem exists with using a reader instead of accessible software, which is that information will become distorted and less available. A reader, even a trained one, becomes a control and a filter for how to present information and what is important. This becomes especially true with software simulations because it will take too long for a reader to describe every changing screen, but the principle applies to all instructional media including textbooks. Blind people have learned through experience and training what information they can get with a screen reader and how to ask for it. Further, the information is available when they need it the way it is for sighted students. Blind students are not receiving equal access when they have to learn at a slower pace, wait for recordings or work around a reader’s schedule, and create notes from scratch from what a reader tells them when the school can provide alternative software and file formats.

In short, forced use of a reader in place of accessible instructional materials will severely stunt a student’s learning and success. They must use software themselves to fully understand concepts. Additionally, schools should expect them to perform from a blindness skill set rather than mastering the counterintuitive skill of operating a visual interface. Equal access also means that both blind and sighted students should have the same independence and ease of use. We must therefore demand that where a school cannot reasonably switch to accessible software, it must provide alternative instructional materials to blind students that do not require the use of a human reader.

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