[assistivenews] FW: FINALLY, Apple Speaks to the Blind

  • From: "Wiley, Bob" <Bob.Wiley@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <assistivenews@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 18 Mar 2004 15:02:13 -0600

Bob Wiley (AT Specialist)
Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services
Assistive Technology Unit
Email: bob.wiley@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Voice: (512) 377-0309
Fax: (512) 377-0400

NOTE: My old email of "bob.wiley@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx" may no longer be available.  
My new email address is: bob.wiley@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

-----Original Message-----
From: Born, Glenda 
Sent: Thursday, March 18, 2004 11:52 AM
To: Sellers, Richard; Mize, Jonathan; Wiley, Bob
Subject: FW: FINALLY, Apple Speaks to the Blind

Thought you'll might be interested in this given your upcoming MAC presentation 
for TAER.
Bob would you pass this on to the newsgroup.
Glenda Born 
Assistive Technology Specialist 
Assistive Technology Unit 
Department of Assistive Rehabilitation Services

4800 N. Lamar 
Austin, Texas  78756 
(512) 377-0311 

-----Original Message-----
From: Stephens, Geoffrey 
Sent: Thursday, March 18, 2004 9:13 AM
To: TCB Adaptive Newsgroup
Subject: FINALLY, Apple Speaks to the Blind

FINALLY, Apple Speaks to the Blind 


From: Business Week Online

By: Alex Salkever 

It's building innovative screen-reading technology into OS X. That's essential 
for the visually impaired -- and a smart business move. 

With its brash marketing campaigns and big brand image, few would accuse Apple 
Computer ( AAPL ) of being a silent company. But to the millions of Americans 
who are legally blind or seriously visually impaired Apple has seemed silent 
and uncaring because it has no screen-reader program of its own. And software 
maker ALVA Access Group decided in summer, 2003, to stop making the last such 
Mac-compatible program on the market. 

This leaves visually impaired Mac users without software that allows them to 
navigate a computer desktop and Web pages by vocalizing complex menu trees, 
cursor locations, and other key visual cues taken for granted by sighted users. 

Apple recognized that ALVA's decision elevated the situation to crisis 
proportions and scrambled to tackle the problem. This week at the 19th annual 
Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference in Los Angeles -- the biggest 
assistive-technology confab in the country -- Jobs & Co. introduced a nifty 
tool to help the blind use Macs again. Apple calls this new technology "Spoken 
Interface." The basic concept is to vocalize and make audible everything that 
visually happens on a desktop, just like screen-reading software. 

UNEQUAL ACCESS. That's big news for a couple of reasons. With no screen reader 
available on Macs, any schools wishing to deploy them faced a potential lawsuit 
on grounds that the blind would be denied equal access. Even if no one sues, 
the prospect of advocacy groups for the visually impaired blaming Apple for 
shunting blind kids onto Windows machines and further isolating them from their 
sighted classroom peers presented a looming PR nightmare. 

Lack of a screen reader could also preclude Apple from winning government 
contracts. Government info-tech departments by law must ensure that all their 
technology is accessible to the maximum degree possible. If Apple lacked a 
screen reader, Windows would be the winner by default. 

I suggested in a November, 2003, column that Apple create a screen reader for 
Macs and offer it to the open-source community (see BW Online, 11/12/03, "A 
Failing for Apple in the Classroom"). After all, that's just what Apple did 
with its Safari Web browser, and the result filled a gaping hole in software 
offerings for the Mac. Apple Senior Product Manager Chris Bourden told me the 
company was aware of the potential problems and was going to work on something 
to address them. 

BARGAIN BUY. Apparently he meant it. And even better, unlike traditional screen 
readers, Apple's technology will be built right into the next version of the OS 
X operating system. That will be a big help. For starters, the price is sweet. 
Spoken Interface won't cost anything extra because it'll be part of the core 
OS. Screen readers for Windows can run up to $1,000, on top of the cost of the 
computer itself. 

The majority of visually impaired Americans are unemployed (businesses haven't 
a great job of adapting the workplace to their needs). So the cost of a 
computer alone can be a heavy burden. Add on screen-reader software, and the 
price soars out of reach. Worse, state and federal disabilities benefits don't 
cover the purchase of these programs. 

That makes owning a Mac a bargain for the visually disabled. True, most Apple 
computers remain more expensive than comparable Windows boxes on a pure price 
basis. But subtract the cost of typical Windows screen-reader software, and 
Apple has effectively slashed the cost of computing for blind and visually 
impaired by $500 or more. That's not chump change. 

EASIER FIT. Apple's decision to build Spoken Interface into OS X also hints at 
all sorts of promising possibilities. Jobs & Co. plans to freely offer 
"application program interfaces" (APIs) for its screen-reading modules to 
software developers. APIs are tools, rules, and protocols that guide a 
programmer in ensuring that new software works well with a specific operating 

Using open APIs (meaning anyone can look at them) should give Mac developers a 
relatively easy way to make their software work well with Spoken Interface. 
Compare that to the Windows world, where software developers have to submit 
their code to engineers at the two major screen-reader software makers -- then 
wait until those engineers tell them how to adjust the code to work with the 
screen readers. It's often an expensive and time-consuming process. 

Apple's aid to programmers goes even further. Bourden says if developers use 
Apple's Cocoa programming environment in writing their programs, they'll 
already have built in over 90% of the information required by Spoken Interface 
to make the program fully accessible. Already, he says, a lot of Cocoa-based 
software works with Spoken Interface without any adjustments to the underlying 
program code at all. 

"BETTER AND BETTER." Apple tested a well-known Cocoa-based shareware 
application, MacJournal, to see how it did with Spoken Interface with no 
modifications. "It was really neat. It worked pretty well right off the bat," 
says Bourden. 

So far, the reaction from the folks in the assistive-technology community who 
worked with Apple on Spoken Interface has been largely positive. "I think 
they're doing phenomenal work. I wouldn't say [that] it's better than [leading 
Windows screen reader] JAWS yet, but it could be. Each time they show me a new 
version, it gets better and better," says Larry Goldberg, director of the 
National Center for Accessible Media, a Boston (Mass.) nonprofit that develops 
assistive-media technologies and advises companies on how to make their 
products friendlier to people with disabilities. 

Ultimately, this is a case of doing well by doing good. Apple still garners 25% 
of revenues from education sales. And the folks at One Infinite Loop surely 
recognize that visual impairment will strike millions of baby boomers in the 
next few decades. That makes screen-reading technology essential if Apple wants 
to hang onto aging customers. 

READY TO TALK. What's more, the open-source community is building its own 
screen readers and accessibility software suites. If Apple had elected not to 
respond, it would have been the only major operating system not to offer 
accessibility tools for the visually impaired. 

Instead, Apple has taken a big leap -- and one that could pay off in 
unsuspected ways. In the long term, Spoken Interface could become a key part of 
how all sorts of people use computers. Many visionaries have predicted a time 
when interactions with computers will employ the most efficient and natural 
communication system people have: the voice. 

When Spoken Interface will actually roll out in a production version of OS X 
remains unclear. Apple says it'll probably go into the next upgrade, but Spoken 
Interface hasn't even entered the "beta" stage of development. 

COMMUNITY EFFORT. Still, the decision to go to the assistive-technology 
community for feedback is tremendous. Apple has traditionally put secrecy among 
its top priorities. In this case, that would have hindered rather than helped 
the effort. The only way to figure out whether a piece of software works for 
visually impaired users is to ask them at every step of the development 

I'm hopeful that Spoken Interface will prove the first step in the long process 
of winning back the visually impaired community's confidence, which had largely 
abandoned Apple a decade ago in favor of Windows machines with better 
screen-reading software. Hats off to Apple for doing the right thing and 
finding a solution relatively quickly that feels good and makes financial 

The department of Assistive and Rehabilitative services does not endorse any 
products or views expressed in messages to this list.  The ideas expressed are 
solely the ideas of the sender, and do not reflect in any way the ideas or 
philosophy of the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative services.

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