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Dr Scott Hollier - Digital Access Specialist Posts

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WCAG 2.1 is here – is your organisation ready?

Dr Scott HollierW3C has launched its new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 standard – the first major update in a decade. This makes it a great time to upskill your staff, assess your organisation’s digital access credentials and maximise your support for people with disabilities.

Whether your needs are local to Australia or international, Scott can provide you with a range of consultancy services, auditing assessments and research endeavours to make websites, apps and documents accessible. Scott can also be booked for speaking engagements based on a variety of topics relating to disability, education, current and future technologies and his life story discussed in his book ‘Outrunning the Night: a life journey of disability, determination and joy’.

Scott’s credentials include a PhD in the field and two decades working across the corporate, government and not-for-profit sectors. Scott is also an active contributor to W3C research and has a personal understanding of digital access as a legally blind person. You can learn more about digital accessibility in the news items below.

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New resource helps people with vision disabilities navigate the NDIS

VisAbility, one of Australia’s service providers for people who are blind or have low vision, recently launched a new resource titled My vision, My Choice to help people with a vision disability navigate their use of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

My Vision My Choice website screenshot

The official VisAbility press release describes the My Vision My Choice website as “…a comprehensive online one-stop-shop, where you can access all you need to know about the NDIS if you live with vision impairment or blindness, are a family member, carer or provider. [the website] successfully brings together everything a person with vision impairment needs to make an informed choice about their NDIS plan in one place.”  

The website contains a large amount of information including:

  • Access to the NDIS planning booklet
  • Sample plans
  • Comprehensive list of Service Providers roles
  • Personal stories and podcasts.

As the project progressed, I had some involvement through the creation and implementation of a community consultation programme to determine what content people would need from the resource. It was great to be involved in the design and implementation of this process which included focus groups and an online survey.

Since the launch of the resource there’s been great feedback in the community that the website is effectively meeting its need as people with vision disabilities continue to work their way through the NDIS process.

Many thanks to VisAbility for the opportunity to work on the project. The My Vision My Choice resource can be found at https://www.myvisionmychoice.org.au.

OZeWAI 2018 conference highlights

The OZeWAI 2018 conference, hosted by the ABC in Sydney, has now ended and a great time was had by all. The three-day event is held every year as Australia’s dedicated national conference for digital access specialists and is renowned for its great community atmosphere and presentations with this year being no exception. Here’s some of my personal highlights from the three days.

Scott at OZeWAI 2018

The keynote was delivered remotely by Nic Steen out from Knowbility titled No Rights, No Responsibility. The speaker made the point that it is important to ensure that people with disability are included in the digital access processes and that training is critical in making sure that effective digital access is achieved.  

Another great presentation was Here comes WCAG 2.1! by Amanda Mace from Web Key IT and Julie Grundy from Intopia. There was some great discussion across the new WCAG 2.1 Success Criteria, explaining the importance of things like reflow and ensuring that content on mobile devices needs to work effectively for people that may not be able to move their device to activate various sensors. With this year marking the WCAG 2.1 release it was a great introduction as to how the new extensions build on the legacy WCAG 2.0 requirements.   

Just before the lunch break on the first day it was my turn to present, discussing the W3C work on inaccessible CAPTCHA. In the presentation I talked about how traditional CAPTCHAs such as the use of text on bitmapped images and audio-based CAPTCHAs are not only inaccessible but also not secure. I also provided an update on the advice our group has been putting together as part of the CAPTCHA advisory note. It was great to have a chance to share the information.

Another session that I really enjoyed was Andrew Downie’s presentation titled The Graphics Divide – When the alt Attribute does not Suffice. I’m frequently asked in workshops as to what is best practice when using alternative text, and Andrew illustrated the point well using popular landmarks and providing relevant text descriptions. The key takeaway from his talk is that it’s relatively easy to use alternative text for WCAG compliance, but that doesn’t mean it’s accessible.

A presenter I always enjoy is Greg Alchin, and he did a great job in discussing the importance of ePub. In a PDF-obsessed world, Greg made the point well that there are a lot of tools and readers available to make the most of the ePub format which is essentially web pages compiled into a document format. While there’s still no WYSIWYG editor that works well for the ePub format and this was a point acknowledged as a current restriction, it’s encouraging to hear that there are plans for it to be included in the Office suite in the future which will go a long way to addressing this issue.

On the second day I featured in a second presentation hosted by Sean Murphy from Cisco Systems whereby we discussed the accessibility implications of Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. When Sean invited me to join him, he said it’d be great to structure it like a fireside chat, so we had an agreement whereby he would bring the questions, and I would bring the fire. As such, I had my laptop next to me playing a YouTube video of ‘HD fireplace with crackle’ while we discussed the implications. Sean made several great points about how the quality of data will heavily determine the effectiveness of our AI perceptions and how issues such as security still have a long way to go. I also talked about my Curtin research as it related to the IoT needs of students in tertiary education.

The last presentation that really had an impact on me was Making Chatbots Accessible by Ross Mullen. Until this presentation I had always assumed that chat boxes were largely a no-go zone for accessibility, but Ross explained that if an effort is made then both conversational support and accessibility can be achieved.

In addition to the presentations it was also great to catch up with lots of familiar faces at the breaks and conference dinners. I also really enjoyed making new friends and meeting many of the Alumni from the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility course.

Special thanks to the OZeWAI committee for putting on such a great conference. If you were unable to get to OZeWAI, you and watch all the session recordings which are now available on YouTube.

W3C launches Digital Access Business Case resource

The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has released a new resource titled The Business Case for Digital Accessibility, designed to highlight the rationale for addressing digital access issues within an organisational strategic context.

In the official announcement e-mailed to the WAI Interest Group Mailing list, the primary purpose of the resource is to provide guidance on the “…direct and indirect benefits of accessibility, and the risks of not addressing accessibility adequately.”

Features of the resource include guidance on the following topics:

  • Drive Innovation
  • Enhance Your Brand
  • Extend Market Reach
  • Minimize Legal Risk

The resource also provides case studies and examples that demonstrate how continued investment in accessibility is good for organizations.

The Business Case for Digital Accessibility resource can be found at https://www.w3.org/WAI/business-case/. Many thanks to the W3C WAI Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG) for their work on such a great resource.

Are assistive technology vendors becoming extinct?

It wasn’t that long ago that commercial Assistive Technology (AT) vendors were viewed as an essential bridge for people with disabilities in gaining access to consumer technologies. While the price for products was high, their role was of vital importance due to mainstream organisations showing little interest in including quality AT products in their operating systems. The vendor space was highly competitive in trying to secure the prime spots for their stands at events and I remember several conferences where the debate over JAWS V WindowEyes or ZoomText V MAGic could become quite animated as each person argued why their choice of product was the best.

These days, however the industry has changed significantly. In recent years many vendors have either been swallowed up through a variety of mergers and takeovers or disappeared entirely. Many of the products that used to be rivals are now owned by the same company such as VFO which has the Freedom Scientific, Enhanced Vision and The Paciello Group (TPG) under their banner. While there may be concern over competition, the power of one company owning several brands has seen great products like Fusion emerge which takes what is arguably the worlds’ best screen reader in JAWS and pairs it with what is generally considered the best screen magnifier in ZoomText and makes them seamlessly work together which is ultimately a great thing for the people that need it.

Yet the acquisition of so many commercial assistive technology providers is no accident. Smaller specialist vendors are feeling the squeeze from fierce competition, and it’s not from each other. Instead, the competition comes from the provision of free AT products built into our everyday devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets. When competition comes from products that have features already built-in, it’s worth asking the question: do I really need to buy something else if something similar already came with my device, and does this mean that the reign of the assistive technology specialist provider is almost over?

Product differentiation

It’s worth noting that just because an AT product arrives built-in doesn’t necessarily mean its better or that people aren’t interested in buying something else. A classic example is the popularity of the Google Chrome web browser. Both Windows and Mac have their own browsers in Edge and Safari respectively, yet people continue to install Chrome due to the perception it provides a better experience and more useful features such as extensions. Likewise, the mere presence of Narrator on Windows or Voiceover on iOS is not enough n its own right to prevent the sale of alternatives.

Yet there is evidence that the existence of assistive technologies being built into popular products is a big factor in damaging the business model of vendors. A great example is the mobile-based screen readers of Voiceover on iOS and TalkBack on Android. While there’s nothing to stop these platforms from having alternative screen readers, the reality is that they are effective tools meaning that there’s no real need to look elsewhere. It’s this step up in quality that has really made the difference. It wasn’t that long ago that third-party screen readers were being purchased and installed on our mobile device but the need for these products has largely disappeared.

To address this, companies like VFO are working to create product differentiation. In addition to Fusion mentioned above which brings a great product to Windows users that differentiates by combining several tools into one, the acquiring of The Paciello Group also opens the doors to new markets such as web accessibility professionals with products such as JAWS Inspect. To quote a recent TPG marketing e-mail:

“JAWS for Windows is a life-changing assistive technology solution that has enabled millions of users to lead more fulfilling lives in the classroom, workplace, and throughout their communities.  but using it to conduct screen reader compatibility testing can be time consuming and inefficient, yielding inconsistent results for testers not familiar with JAWS Commands. TPG’s one of a kind testing tool, JAWS Inspect takes all the complexities out of manual testing. It provides text output of JAWS audio to enable you to quickly identify UX issues for JAWS users, along with additional testing functionalities. The best part is that you don’t have to be a JAWS expert or know any JAWS keystrokes to use it, so you can start testing immediately.”

This means that even in a climate where the already small market share of JAWS has dropped off substantially to free competitors such as built-in assistive technologies and the excellent open-source screen reader NVDA, there is still the potential to sell the product in some form to a new audience by turning its smarts into a gold standard testing tool. It’s a clever repositioning as the tester doesn’t have to learn the complexities associated with learning a screen reader, and yet the results are provided for web accessibility auditing work. This approach highlights the benefits of having several companies merge into one and supporters argue it continues to breathe life into the need for specialist vendors.

Price differentiation

However, before we all start rushing out to buy Fusion and JAWS Inspect, it’s worth noting that there is a significant difference in price and this difference is not in favour of the specialist vendor. The cost of purchasing Fusion Home in Australia is $AUD1,715.00 ($USD1240.00). If you are a web accessibility professional and think that JAWS Inspect would naturally be cheaper as you’re getting a testing tool rather than the actual product, you may be surprised to learn that the cost of JAWS Inspect is $USD10,000 for five licenses.

With those prices in mind, let’s consider what free or more affordable options there may be to help counter the costs of such tools. Sticking with Windows for the moment, instead of Fusion you could potentially enable the Narrator screen reader and Magnifier which are free. You could also enable the high contrast themes to make it easier on the eyes and adjust the mouse pointer size, similar to the features found in Fusion. These are all available for free as part of the operating system and all work well together.

When these type of suggestions are mentioned in disability circles, the question that inevitably comes up is one of quality. It’s a fair point that Narrator is not the most polished of screen readers, but it has just improved significantly as discussed in my hands-on review of Narrator in the recent Windows 10 October update. The usual counterargument to commercial screen readers though is NVDA which is a screen reader of high quality and similar functionality to JAWS. If you’re able to look outside Windows there are many choices including the built-in VoiceOver for Mac, VoiceOver for iOS and TalkBack for Android.

In terms of web accessibility professionals, it’s fair to say there’s not many products like JAWS Inspect. However, if you’re a web accessibility specialist you really should in my view learn how to use at least one screen reader so you have an understanding of the target audience you’re supporting. If the issue is ease of use, the latest Narrator update provides a great tutorial on first use for desktop users and TalkBack on Android has a great first use tutorial for users of touchscreen devices.

Such excellent tutorials suggest to me there’s no reason a screen reader can’t be learnt quickly and in turn used for accessibility testing. Furthermore, there are many automated testing tools that assess websites against the WCAG 2.x standard of which there are free options and other great products priced much lower than JAWS Inspect.

The end of an era – or is it?

The upshot is that the business model of the 1990s and early 2000s which relied heavily on high prices for AT software at a time when there were few other options is no longer viable. To quote the tagline on the NVDA website:

“We believe that every Blind + Vision Impaired person Deserves the right to freely & easily access a computer!”

This is the current expectation of AT users and a view I personally share. In this era of hot-desking, always-on connectivity and the expectation that people with disabilities can walk up to any device and use it, the idea that an accessible experience has to be tied to one license on one device seems antiquated and unnecessary.

That said, I still believe that AT vendors have an important place but the business model has to change. The creator of the Dragon products, for example, has demonstrated in recent years that it is possible to provide quality AT software at a reasonable price point and as a result it continues to be popular. AT vendors also have an important role to play in the innovation space, especially  in hardware-based specialist products that continue to meet a need currently unsupported by mainstream devices. The biggest difference in the market now is that accessibility is no longer seen as a luxury, but rather a right to participation. While companies understandably need to profit from their inventions, the expectation now is that vendors will ensure that the first priority for any new product is that people will benefit from it rather than companies profiting from it. It’s my hope that this will be the focus of the future so that people with disabilities can get the access they need while the vendors continue to innovate in this space.

Narrator mega-upgrade in Windows 10 October update: hands-on

The road to the Windows 10 October 2018 update has ben a hard one for Microsoft as it had to postpone its rollout due to a series of issues including the unintentional deletion of personal files. However, from an accessibity perspective, the update is great news as the built-in Narrator screen reader has received significant improvements, both in terms of features and usability. Happily, my computer survived the update before Microsoft pulled it, resulting in a great opportunity to get acquainted with the significantly improved screen reader.  

Keyboard shortcuts are now more familiar

When Narrator is started with the usual Windows + CTRL + Enter command, the first thing that now greets you is a message that the keyboard shortcuts have changed. 

Narrator keyboard shortcut message in high contrast black

While this will mean that existing Narrator users will have to learn a new set of shortcut keys, for users of more popular screen reader such as JAWS and NVDA – which is most blind users – the Narrator commands have become much more intuitive. This is a great move and streamlines the experience for people wanting to use Narrator whether as an ad-hoc or permanent screen reader solution

Narrator Quick Start Tutorial now included

When I realised that the Narrator commands I was used to no longer worked, I was initially a bit worried about the process of relearning everything. However, it turned out Microsoft had already considered this with the inclusion of a clever Quick Start tutorial wizard that breaks down the learning process to a few commands at a time. This is useful for everyone, but its especially useful for users new to screen readers. The tutorial wizard features about a dozen screens, each one providing a sandboxed environment to learn about some new commands and then try them out before progressing to the next section.  

Narrator Quick Start Welcome screen in high contrast black

The Quick Start screens are as follows:

  • Welcome: a screen that explains how the Quick Start guide works.
  • Explore your keyboard: this page provides an opportunity for input learning where you can try out a key and hear Narrator explain what it does.
  • Scan mode: explains how the arrow keys can be used to scan around the page.
  • Reading words and characters: explains how Narrator can read out individual words or characters for proofing and editing.

Narrator Headings QUick Start screen in high contrast black

  • Headings: provides a window with sample headings to move around using the ‘H’ key.
  • Landmarks: explains how landmarks can be useful to move between navigation, main content and search options.  
  • Entering text: explains how Scan Mode is disabled when editing text and provides an opportunity to try it out.  
  • Buttons: explains how Narrator can interact with checkboxes and other controls. 
  • The Narrator key: Explains the significance of the Narrator key which like other Windows screen readers can issue commands using either CAPS LOCK or Insert. 
  • Important Narrator commands: provides an overview of Narrator commands typically used in everyday tasks.
  • Try it out: provides an opportunity to try using the commands learnt through the Quick Start guide on a webpage.  
  • Navigating Apps: highlights some general keyboard commands that are not necessarily Narrator-specific but likely to be useful.
  • Guide summary: an overview of the key points covered in the guide.

The great thing about the Quick Start guide is that most of the screens not only explain what the functions are but provide you with an opportunity to try out the commands while remaining inside the tutorial wizard. This means that once a user is comfortable with the command they can go to the Next button and learn the new features. While other tutorials like the Android Talkback are effective in providing an opportunity to practice in an environment away from direct interaction until the user achieves the task, Narrator has the bonus of not moving to the next option until the user is ready to do so.  

In terms of improvements to Narrator itself, I’ve noticed that it seems to work much better in picking up landmarks along with a faster and easier web browsing experience. It may be the case that such features were in the older version but were difficult to access with the keyboard commands, but the updated Narrator is certainly a step above in ease and usability compared to Windows 10 prior to the October 2018 update.

Is it better than JAWS or NVDA?

The big question likely to be asked by many is whether Narrator has evolved to a point now where it can be used in place of a commercial screen reader such as JAWS or the excellent open-source screen reader of NVDA on Windows. In my opinion, Narrator has finally come of age and for many blind and low-vision users the combination of familiar keyboard commands and an excellent tutorial may be enough for casual everyday use. That said, users that rely on a screen reader for critical work such as researching or interaction with technical information will find Narrator lacking, and despite the improvements the update is unlikely to be any threat to the popularity of existing screen readers. Given that Narrator is already built into Windows and the keyboard commands will now be much more familiar, I’d recommend trying it out when your computer receives the October update but keep your usual screen reader handy as it’s likely you’ll need to return to it for heavy-duty computer use. Where I do think Narrator will be useful though is for people recently diagnosed with an eye condition as they can use the Quick Start guide to get familiar with a screen reader and the keyboard commands they learn are now largely transferrable to other screen readers.  

Additional information on the significantly updated Narrator can be found on the Microsoft Accessibility blog Windows 10 October update page.