Earlier this year, I wrote a four-part article series - "Accessibility on the Mac: Trouble in Paradise" - explaining the relatively poor state of adaptive technology for disabled Mac users and documenting Apple's years of neglect of accessibility issues.
Time for an update.
Apple has made some small steps with Mac OS X; we've seen some movement in the world of multimedia; I finally managed to find some statistics on numbers of users with disabilities. But adaptive technology for Macs remains ill-developed compared to the enormous Windows market. Since the first article series was published, I was unable to find any news of significant upgrades to Macintosh adaptive technology or new plans for Mac OS X compatibility. If it's happening, adaptive-technology vendors, whom I specifically asked for updates, are not talking.
Mac OS X and Apple Politics -- A number of sources inside and outside Apple have told me my original article series did not go unnoticed. In fact, Apple and one adaptive-technology vendor were upset at the public airing of what, in their view, resembled dirty laundry.
As the saying goes, the truth hurts. There's a long history of advocacy journalism, where the writer attempts to spur on social consciousness, and in this case it seems to be garnering results.
Most importantly, a set of rudimentary accessibility utilities was rushed into Mac OS X 10.1. Sticky Keys and Mouse Keys, familiar from System 7 and later but absent from the first releases of Mac OS X, are back. CloseView, a rather inadequate screen-magnification utility, is still missing. (Some users report limited success with Pixie, a utility included with Mac OS X developer tools.) However, at long last and for the first time ever in an off-the-shelf a Mac OS version, it is possible to use the keyboard to control onscreen interface elements, including the Dock and the menubar, a capability that's second nature to Windows users.
Unfortunately, the keyboard-control feature has proven to be buggy and inconsistent. The TidBITS editors have been unable to figure out the option to highlight any control in windows and dialogs. It seems to work in Open dialogs in Cocoa applications no matter what the setting in the Keyboard preferences panel is, but it doesn't seem to work in the Open dialogs of Carbon applications, again no matter what the Keyboard preferences panel says. Plus, there are keyboard shortcuts for access to the "Toolbar" and "Utility window (palette)" but it's unclear what those refer to. John Siracusa's typically readable review of Mac OS X 10.1 at Ars Technica looks at one of the many bugs with the keyboard-control feature.
However, now that it is possible to control the operating system by keyboard, Web authors have a whole new source of conflicts in using the ACCESSKEY attribute of HTML, which assigns keystrokes to Web page features like links and images. Conflicts with Windows system keystrokes were already a problem (you can hold down Alt and press letter keys to pull down menus and select options). Now we have another set of potential conflicts with which to contend. One step forward, another step back. In all fairness, though, keystroke conflicts merely scratch the surface of the incompatibilities with ACCESSKEY, which is in rare use online.
One thing Apple has done right is finally come up with a pictograph that symbolizes the concept of accessibility generally - a da Vinci-like figure with limbs outstretched in a circle, as seen in the Mac OS X Universal Access control panel. No more ridiculous tadpole-headed stickmen in wheelchairs!
Apple's online promotion of its accessibility provisions has been modestly updated but does not even provide screenshots and instructions for the new utilities. Web pages are still emblazoned with the feel-good euphemism "People with Special Needs," and an entire section of the site is allocated to speech-to-speech telephone relay services, which have nothing to do with computers, let alone Macs.
I am still waiting for the day that Apple "gets it" on the topic of accessibility, which requires a broad commitment, including the hiring of dedicated staff to work on a wide range of activities. I was, however, finally able to confirm that Apple does in fact employ an adaptive technology partnership manager. It's a start, and, according to sources, more and more managers inside Apple are finally figuring out that accessibility cannot be ignored anymore.
Even with these improvements, Macs continue to stand squarely in the accessibility shadow of Windows. The Mac OS still lacks a set of system-level hooks for easy use by adaptive technology (along the lines of Microsoft Active Accessibility on Windows), and there's nothing remotely resembling Microsoft's staff of developers who do nothing but work on accessibility all day.
Section 508 -- Money talks, and Apple has managed to wise up quickly to avoid losing U.S. federal government contracts altogether. So-called Section 508 requirements have been in effect since 21-Jun-01; they require U.S. federal agencies to improve accessibility for disabled employees and the public they serve, very much encompassing desktop and portable computers and Web sites.
The sprawling, scattershot Section 508 requirements are difficult to understand even for experts, but they are not optional. Although it is legally possible to enforce the 508 regulations right now, in reality a certain grace period is underway. Eventually, government managers will require vendors to certify their equipment as 508-compliant before they can make a purchase. Noncompliant systems simply could not be purchased, meaning, in what is at once the worst and the most likely case, the U.S. government could never buy another Macintosh.
Apple already has statements available concerning 508 compliance on its little-known Web pages dedicated to the American federal government.
The compliance statement for Mac OS 9 on that page states: "Apple's system software Mac OS 9.1 is compliant with all of Section 508 technology requirements except the keyboard mouse alternatives and that, to the best of our knowledge, is technology that does not now exist in the marketplace for our platform." Even after making inquiries, I have not been able to clarify this declaration. The Mouse Keys utility itself seems to work just fine as a mouse replacement, as Apple mentions earlier on that same page on the topic of Mac OS X accessibility (Mouse Keys "[a]llows users to control the mouse cursor using the keypad on the keyboard rather than the mouse itself"). Perhaps this means Mouse Keys provides no way to use controls directly via the keyboard; controlling the cursor via the keyboard isn't exactly the same thing.
In any event, everyone - at Apple and in the computer industry as a whole - had two and a half years' warning that Section 508 regulations or their equivalent were coming (including six months' warning of the full details of the actual regulations); Apple could have written a full "keyboard mouse alternative" in that time.
Also, nowhere at the online Apple Store can one find information about accessibility - not even at the U.S. federal-government online store that is as little-known as Apple's government sales force itself.
While we're on the subject of the Apple Store, its Web site, like Apple's Web sites generally, does not follow the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. A blind person using a screen reader, for example, would have quite a few problems manipulating Apple's Web sites, and actually buying something would be next to impossible.
Multimedia -- If you work with movie files, you may be keen on creating your own captions (for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers) and audio descriptions (for the blind and visually impaired).
WGBH Educational Foundation's freeware Media Access Generator software (MAGpie), which lets you caption, subtitle, and describe multimedia files, has been upgraded to version 2.0. Among other new abilities, you may finally record your own audio descriptions right on the spot; previously, you could merely insert prerecorded audio files. Although it's still a beta, MAGpie is no longer a Windows-only product. The bad news? On the Macintosh, it's a Mac OS X-only product. Further bad news? WGBH is not accepting any more beta-testers.
Meanwhile, a smart piece of Macintosh software from Leapfrog Productions, CCaption, lets you create closed- and open-caption video and QuickTime files. It still needs work, but CCaption can already do things that nothing else on the Mac platform can.
Macromedia is still working away at reducing the inaccessibility of Flash and Shockwave content, though Flash files remain essentially inaccessible to blind viewers and are difficult to make accessible to anyone with a hearing impairment.
Nonetheless, I did find a single example of a Flash animation with captioning. Although this is better than nothing, it should not be seen as genuine progress.
Apple continues its tradition, now nearing a decade old, of posting hours of QuickTime video on its various Web sites, virtually none of which carries access features like captioning, description, subtitling, or dubbing. It's not as though Apple can truly pretend it is unaware that accessibility is an issue. Among other things, the QuickTime format explicitly provides for multiple text and audio tracks.
Further, iDVD and DVD Studio Pro remain inadequate for creating accessible DVDs for the simple reason that training for access techniques like captioning and audio description is not available. This isn't solely Apple's fault; training is not available anywhere at all. (I have heard of occasional courses for audio description of live theatre, but there is no similar training at all for film, TV, or video.)
In the original article series, I pointed out that, while captioning, subtitling, and dubbing are common on movies on DVD, audio description is not. That's still true, but the number of known DVDs with audio description now stands at seven for Region 1 (U.S., Canada, U.S. territories) and about a dozen for Region 2 (Japan, Europe, South Africa, Middle East).
Another Region 1 described DVD, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, is now available, and it is actually big news. The disc is the first commercial DVD with all of the following: Captioning throughout (by two different companies, though in an apparent oversight, the included Faith Hill music video is uncaptioned); audio description of absolutely everything from start to finish, including all bonus features; and audiovisual menus a blind person can use.
Future commercial DVD producers no longer have any excuses; The Grinch proves what's possible and indeed elegant. Accessibility does not impede popularity, either: Universal Studios sold three million accessible Grinch DVDs in a matter of weeks. And the access features are merely listed with the discs's many other extras, as though they always belonged there all along.
However, dozens of movies described for theatrical release (see the MoPix discussion below) remain undescribed on later DVD releases, including geek favorite Star Wars: Episode 1, The Phantom Menace. There are rare technical reasons why descriptions could not be included on those DVDs, but in broad terms, it's unforgivable; the description tracks were already written, recorded, paid for, and digitized.
Speaking of theatrical movies: As the result of a human-rights complaint, it is now possible to watch open-captioned movies in regularly scheduled screenings in many cities in Australia. Open captioning, whereby captions are always visible, is still essentially nonexistent everywhere else in the world. The hundred or so screens in the U.S. showing open-captioned movies are a drop in the bucket.
The WGBH MoPix system of closed-captioning and audio description of first-run movies has added nine screens in the U.S., and five screens in Canada, the first installations outside the United States. There are now about 60 total screens with MoPix captioning and/or description. By any stretch of the imagination, these are not large numbers: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone alone opened in some 3,672 theaters, though captioning and description were available with the MoPix system.
Statistics -- After a great deal of research, I finally managed to locate some credible statistics on the incidence of computer and Internet users with disabilities.
A report by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce, states that 20.9 percent of people with disabilities in the U.S. regularly use computers (compared with 51 percent of nondisabled people). Figures for Internet use are similar - 21.6 percent of disabled people are online compared to 42.1 percent of nondisabled people.
This study did not ask about the specific computer platform used and actually employed the term "PC" rather than "computer," which, one of the investigators told me, might have predisposed Mac owners to respond that they did not in fact have access to a "PC."
Using a more restrictive definition of disability, a University of Southern California study holds that 23.9 percent of people with disabilities have computers in the home (versus 51.7 percent of nondisabled people), while 11.1 percent of disabled people and 46.5 percent of nondisabled people use the Internet "at home" or "elsewhere." (Authors of both those studies are aware of no credible statistics anywhere else.)
What's Next? Frankly, things are not improving fast enough in Macintosh accessibility. This is definitely a case of blaming the head office: The central problem remains Apple, which simply is not taking the issue seriously enough as a corporation. I do, however, know several Apple employees who are taking accessibility very seriously indeed, and whose entire approach to accessibility could be a model for the company to follow - not that Apple doesn't already have models available, since emulating Microsoft is a fair option. Still, accessibility is one area in which Mac users are objectively worse off than Windows users. It's a gap that pressingly needs to be closed.
[Toronto writer Joe Clark has followed accessibility issues for more than 20 years and is the author of Building Accessible Websites (New Riders Publishing, 2002).]