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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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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.

Three workshops, three cities, three days: ATO continues to expand its access commitments

Last week I was given the great privilege of supporting the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) by continuing to upskill its staff through the delivery of three workshops across three cities over three days.

Scott presenting to ATO staff

The workshops were designed in consultation with ATO staff to support their internal marketing and communications, IT, design and content teams, focusing initially on the personal journey of disability then expanding to look at the user experience more broadly. The focus then shifted to how content can be prepared to ensure effective messaging for people with disability through the provision of accessible web, document and game accessibility requirements.

The three workshops held in Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne respectively featured lots of great discussion relating to the experience of using a screen reader for the first time, the importance of captioned video content and discussion on how to create an accessible game using multiple control mechanisms. As a result of the workshops, the teams will continue to maximise accessibility whether that be from a marketing & communications, IT, design or publishing perspective, so that it can continue to make its community engagement and in particular ato.gov.au as effective as possible.

The opportunity to deliver the three workshops resulted from the ATO’s earlier commitment to internally transition to the new WCAG 2.1 standard. It is hoped that other government departments will follow the ATO’s lead by strengthening its messaging processes for the mobile web and beyond. 

An open letter to Australian digital access providers: let’s grow the industry together

To the Australian digital access community,

It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since I left my full-time position at Media Access Australia and began the journey as a solo Digital Access Specialist. For the most part the journey has been an exciting one: highlights to date include active participation in the W3C Research Questions Taskforce (RQTF), the recent creation of the Centre for Accessibility initiative in partnership with DADAA and Media on Mars, running workshops in Vietnam and meeting so many great people along the way.

However, in recent times I’ve received a steady flow of phone calls, e-mails and requests for a ‘chat’ about the state of the industry. This has included demands to take sides in supporting one company or event over another and several requests for me to back off from digital access work altogether. While I understand that there are the normal ebbs and flows of competition in any sector, and perhaps I was somewhat shielded from all this before I became an independent consultant, it’s still been disappointing to see the industry changing from respectful competition between providers to a desire to tear down the great work being done by others. As such I’d like to speak to you about the importance of all the work being done in the industry as both a person with a lived experience of disability and as an access specialist.     

When I first completed my PhD, I had gained significant knowledge about the world of digital access and its implications for people with disability. However, as a fresh graduate with a speciality in the field I had little awareness or support on what to do with that information. My boss at the Association for the Blind of WA, now VisAbility, saw that I was isolated as a digital access specialist and sent me to my first OZeWAI national conference. This was the first time I realised there was a supportive community of digital access professionals who provided vital guidance and mentorship as I started my work in the area. It’s fair to say that my experience is not an isolated one and I suspect that pretty much every digital access professional in Australia has benefitted from this supportive community. While OZeWAI is a niche conference, it’s the only place that specifically supports the ability of digital access specialists to come together and share knowledge about the sector. I’m looking forward to coming this year and sharing information about my role as lead Editor for the CATPCHA Advisory note and again showing my appreciation as a legally blind person to everyone that has dedicated their careers to working in this space.  

In addition, the past decade or so has seen a separate but equally important series of events pop up which also play a vital role in the digital access journey in the form of meetup groups and Camp events. While OZeWAI is fantastic in supporting people working in the sector, there’s not much need for digital access providers if the broader community doesn’t want to make its content accessible. As such, its important that organisations everywhere understand what accessibility is and how it is embedded into their work practices. This is where local events are so important and it’s been exciting to see the popularity of these groups and events growing. For example, our meetup group remains strong despite its oh-so-early start time of 7:30am and our Perth Web Accessibility Camp had 140 attendees which has been steadily growing for the past five years. The A11y Camp held over east for a few years also appears to be popular, as is the A11y Bytes events held on Global Accessibility Awareness Day. These are all great initiatives in getting the accessibility message out to people. Again, as a person with a disability it’s wonderful to see so many people actively putting on these events and the level of engagement they are having with the community.

However, the calls, e-mails and chats I’ve received recently suggest that there’s increasing competition between these events and I’m a bit puzzled as to why this needs to be the case. All these events are held at different times in different places with the aim of supporting different communities. For example, I doubt many organisations would want to send their staff to both the Perth Camp and the A11y Camp as they meet a similar local audience, cover similar content and are located 4,000kms apart from each other. In my view it makes sense to have these types of events locally so that organisations can easily send along their staff at a low cost and bring that accessibility knowledge back with them. By contrast, the relatively small number of digital access specialists means a national conference like OZeWAI makes sense as a place where we can upskill our own knowledge.  

The issue that’s been raised with me many times recently, especially by members of my meetup group, is that there seems to be a strong push to support one approach or organisation’s work at the expense of all others. Recent complaints raised with me centred on some people joining our meetup list with the sole purpose of spamming our list with commercial products and services which were not only ignored as spam, but also demonstrated a lack of interest and respect in the important accessibility work that our members are doing here. While our group welcomes anyone that would like to come along and speak to us, the point was made that it’s hard to hear the message coming through the front door when it seems like someone is trying to break in through the back.

Speaking to other digital access professionals it seems these issues run far deeper than just those raised by my meetup group with concerns raised across the country ranging from claims of jealousy by some and conspiracy by others. The upshot is that all events are important and there’s plenty of room for more. Given that Perth can consistently draw a crowd, attract quality keynotes and work effectively with competing providers to achieve a great outcome, there’s no reason why great standalone events couldn’t happen in every capital city as we have the population to support them and the passion to host them. It’s my hope that we’ll see more events supported by more collaboration across providers in the future.

While I don’t see a need to compete in the events space, I fully appreciate that there is competition between providers of digital access services and this is a normal part of any sector. Yet recently this seems to have spilled over from respectful competition to a need for some providers to contact me with a request to remove myself from particular types of work. I’m not sure if this is common practice in the industry but given I’ve been asked about my work processes and where I stand, I thought it best to share it with you here.

Firstly, and most importantly, if anyone knocks on my door and asks for help with digital access, I’m going to help them. Sometimes that’s voluntary work and currently that makes up about two days a week of my time. Sometimes that may be commercial work. If the work is not in my skillset such as a phone call I received a few weeks ago about wheelchair brackets in cars, I’ll endeavour to connect that request with someone that can help. Sometimes I’ve knocked back work because it wanders into dodgy territory, but basically if the work helps people and is ethically sound then I’ll usually take it on. I’m also interested in working on things that can help promote the industry more broadly, and for this reason I’ve really enjoyed my work with the Centre for Accessibility initiative as we look to create projects that can strengthen community engagement. Sometimes the work I do may be in competition with other providers, and sometimes it will be something new, but the one thing it will always be is my passion. As such, if you call me with the aim of discouraging me from doing this work, I’m willing to listen but I can assure you it won’t’ change my commitment to the field. 

The final point I’d like to make relates to all people with a lived experience of disability wanting to undertake digital access work. One of the topics that I keep hearing about time and time again this year is debate over which service provider is the largest in Australia. What I’d prefer to hear debated is which digital access provider has the most people with disability employed on a living wage as a part-time or full-time employee. Currently there are lots of talented people with disability available but most are either on a casual contract waiting for the phone to ring or have no work at all. In other countries organisations that work in this space are able to employ people with disability at a decent wage for decent work, so I’m sure the business models here can be adjusted to do the same. The reality is that while people with disability will take casual work if that’s the only thing on offer, the employment situation wont’ get better if businesses are unwilling to bring staff with disability on permanently. The next time I see a newsletter sent out highlighting new staff brought into an access provider it’s my hope I’ll see it feature a person with disability in a permanent position.

To close, I think it’s worth reflecting on two possible futures for our industry in 2019. Do we want a sector where we try to rebrand all our events to gain prominence over others, adversely influence each other’s work  and try to block new initiatives? Or alternatively, do we want to grow the industry together by competing respectfully with each other and supporting everyone’s endeavours – including people with disability – in making a difference? Ultimately we will all decide this question soon, but it’s my hope we can look to 2019 as a time to refocus on what’s important and grow the industry together.  

Yours sincerely

Dr Scott Hollier

Digital Access Specialist