Series: Accessibility on the Mac
Joe Clark examines the state of adaptive technology for Mac users with disabilities
Article 1 of 5 in series
by Joe Clark
By now, Mac users are mature enough to admit that the Macintosh isn't better than Windows in every respect. I go back 20 years in accessibility and disability issues, and I consider myself nothing less than a Macintosh separatist, so it pains me to say that pretty much any computer user with a relevant disability ought to be using Windows, not a Mac. Ponder that for a momentShow full article
By now, Mac users are mature enough to admit that the Macintosh isn't better than Windows in every respect. I go back 20 years in accessibility and disability issues, and I consider myself nothing less than a Macintosh separatist, so it pains me to say that pretty much any computer user with a relevant disability ought to be using Windows, not a Mac.
Ponder that for a moment. Can you think of any other entire population that should not use Macs, that should actively favour Windows machines? (Grandparents? Muslims? Icelanders? Orthodontists?) Can you think of another group that is almost completely locked out of Macintosh use, but well situated to work on Windows?
Did you even know this was a problem?
It wasn't always this way, and things may improve in the Mac OS X era, but at the moment we're facing major roadblocks when it comes to disabled people's use of the Macintosh: The issues involved with accessibility are poorly understood and elicit fear and resistance, while at the same time the actual hardware and software a disabled Mac user may need is difficult to come by and quite often inferior to what the other platform can provide. Moreover, Apple has neglected disabled Mac users for years, and is set to make a major blunder with Mac OS X.
But let's start at the beginning.
Access 101 -- With computers having expanded beyond pure computing to become communication devices, people with disabilities want to use computers in ever-increasing numbers. However, certain disabilities interfere with computer use - or, more accurately, the way computers are made today presents barriers to some disabled people.
How many people with disabilities are there? It's simply impossible to find reliable numbers on the many relevant disabilities worldwide. The forms disability takes are so widespread that even defining disability is tricky. (I once worked for a government project team that spent two years trying to do just that.) But as just one example, the American Federation of the Blind estimates there are 900,000 blind or visually-impaired computer users in the United States.
Moving away from statistics, here's a useful way of looking at things: is your disability severe enough to affect your use of a Macintosh? In some cases, the answer is a clear no. A single-leg amputee, for example, has no barriers at all to using a Mac. But other disability groups do face barriers.
If you're blind or visually-impaired, how do you read and interpret the text, graphics, menus, dialog boxes, and other visual details on the screen? How do you read the legends on the keyboard? How do you read software documentation? What about multimedia? How do you surf the Web?
If you're deaf or hard of hearing, how will Macintosh alert sounds actually manage to alert you? How do you benefit from soundtracks found in multimedia?
If you have a mobility impairment that prevents you from moving the mouse or typing on a keyboard, what do you do?
Accessibility is about accommodating characteristics a person cannot change by providing options.
Adaptive Technology -- Even five years ago, it was quite possible to find a wide range of so-called adaptive technology - hardware or software designed to eliminate barriers to using a Mac. The "institutional support" for the entire issue of accessibility was also worlds apart from what we have now. Starting in 1985, Apple's Worldwide Disability Solutions Group (WDSG) worked on everything from Apple II accessibility to online communities for disabled kids. Crucially, the WDSG also worked with developers to produce adaptive technology and to make existing software and hardware accessible (with, admittedly, patchy results). But Steve Jobs fired the five-person WDSG in January 1998, saving a paltry million dollars annually.
Since then, despite Apple's financial resurgence, accessibility has had no official champion inside Apple and none of the official importance an entire department provides. All you can find now are a few skimpy, feel-good pages on the education section of Apple's Web site. (The emphasis on education seems to imply that disabled Mac users cease to be disabled once they graduate from school.)
Meanwhile, Microsoft and even IBM have maintained and expanded their own accessibility divisions, keeping up with software and hardware development and crucial consciousness-raising among developers.
Shutting down the WDSG coincided with the ascendancy of the Internet, which suddenly added entire new layers of inaccessibility, particularly for blind computer users. (I'll explore Internet accessibility in a future article.)
Further, people with disabilities have legal rights. In the United States, Canada, Australia, most of Western Europe, and other nations, it's illegal to fire or refuse to hire a qualified disabled person (among other related rights). Employers are required to "accommodate" disabled employees. That can involve altering the job itself, providing adaptive technology, offering different work hours, or any of a range of modifications that do not threaten the existence or nature of the business. That might end up meaning that even all-Mac shops would be forced to buy Windows machines for disabled employees. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act is the primary law enshrining rights for people with disabilities. In other countries, it's typical for human-rights legislation to cover disability issues.
Ignorance and Fear -- Disability is commonplace in human society, but, just as it is often difficult to expand your sphere of friends outside your own race or religious group, it's unusual for a non-disabled person to have a disabled friend. People lack real-world role models - actual people they know and trust from whom they can learn about disability.
And, in any event, even if you have a deaf friend, neither you nor your friend necessarily knows anything about blindness or paralysis. Disability is too diverse. The depictions of disability on television and film are notoriously hackneyed, stereotyped, and simply inaccurate, so take them with a grain of salt. Dealing with people with disabilities, then, requires you to contemplate being disabled yourself. That's tough for many people.
There's no quick fix for the anxiety issue. It takes person-to-person acquaintanceship and simply getting used to disability over time. The integration of disabled people into the workforce aids in that goal.
The Accessible Future -- In my next article, I'll run through the relevant disabilities and provide a buyer's guide to the adaptive technology available to reduce barriers on the Mac. There isn't a lot.
Simply put, everything is better on Windows when it comes to accessibility. You've got support from Microsoft itself, the fact of corporate and government standardization on Windows as a guaranteed sales base, and the simple momentum of the world's most popular, if not best, operating system.
You have, moreover, many more software and hardware products. Nearly all the vendors of Mac accessibility products sell the same products for Windows systems and also many other Windows-only products. Some vendors and distributors, like Madentec and Prentke-Romich, are effectively Windows-only and offer large catalogues of products.
Do a Web search for adaptive technology vendors and the resulting list is notable for its length and its near-exclusion of Macs (and, indeed, anything other than Windows). And we can all remember the course of development of continuous speech recognition on personal computers: Windows first, Mac later. That's quite representative of adaptive technology in general.
Windows adaptive technology runs the gamut from word-prediction software that helps kids read and write to sophisticated combinations of screen readers and Braille displays, letting a blind person simultaneously hear text that's presented on-screen and read system commands (like menus and status-line messages) in Braille. Ironically enough, an onscreen keyboard included with Windows 2000, developed by Madentec, started out as a Mac-only program.
Although it may be a bit much to expect a blind computer user to retouch JPEGs in Photoshop or produce a set of PowerPoint slides, adaptive technology makes it possible for people with a wide range of disabilities to perform pretty much every computer task encountered in an ordinary office... on Windows, at least.
OS Hooks -- There's also the issue of system "hooks." It is quite possible to design an operating system that works elegantly with adaptive technology, but the operating system must be actively designed for that purpose, providing hooks, or background functions, that programs like screen readers can use directly.
As a parallel, think of Macintosh menu commands: You can select Quit from the File menu or press Command-Q (or Command and then Q, if you have the right adaptive technology). The system provides a hook for a keyboard equivalent of a menu command. Access provisions work the same way, effectively giving you more than one way to accomplish a task.
It's necessary to build access provisions into the operating system from the beginning; retrofitting is always more complicated and spotty. Microsoft has less than a perfect record in this respect, but at least they're trying, with something called Active Accessibility, among other efforts.
The holy grail is a set of system hooks that work with all software and hardware. The reality is that manufacturers of adaptive technology have to program their own hooks and workarounds. Can you say "reinventing the wheel?"
Lou Grosso of Alva Access Group tells me that, based on his conversations with Apple's own developers, the first full release of Mac OS X and its candy-coated Aqua interface will contain no access hooks at all, but that subsequent releases might. (Apple did not respond to several requests for comment.) As far as Apple is concerned, does lickability trump accessibility?
Over here in the land of the overlapping minorities (Mac users who also are disabled), things will probably get worse before they get better. Paradoxically, several developers contacted for this story hinted or stated outright that development for Mac OS X will reinvigorate their product lines. That seems dubious at best; even some die-hard Mac supporters are not exactly salivating at the prospect of an entirely new operating system. If adaptive technology developers found it too expensive or too difficult to develop for a platform that's been around for 16 years, how can we expect a sudden surge of development for an operating system that's still in beta?
Moreover, Mac OS X is more visual than any previous Mac operating system. Contrary to popular belief (among, say, Web authors), it is not necessary to reduce visual complexity to make a system accessible. But the lack of accessibility hooks in Mac OS X is a serious issue, and, in the twenty-first century, brand-new operating systems simply should not exist without thorough access provisions. It's unforgivable.
Forcing Apple's Hand -- Steve Jobs has been in no hurry to reinstate the Worldwide Disability Solutions Group or something akin to it. (One Apple source did explain that the company employs an assistive technology partnership manager, but that could not be confirmed.) That may, however, have to change. The U.S. government has set deadlines in 2001 by which desktop computers, government Web sites, kiosks, telephone systems, and other forms of information technology must be accessible.
There isn't a big-name software or hardware vendor that doesn't sell to the U.S. government, including Apple. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory alone reportedly has 12,000 Macs (and provides a page of Mac baseline equipment standards).
Both existing computers and new purchases will be covered by the accessibility regulations throughout the U.S. government. Without significant recommitment to accessibility, Apple might lose government accounts altogether.
Accessibility on the Mac has been neglected and damaged by Apple's own actions and that perennial bugbear, "market forces." A great deal of catching up is in order. Only time will tell how Apple will respond to this pressing need. In my next article, I'll offer an adaptive-technology buyer's guide to help you find today's accessibility solutions for the Mac.
[Joe Clark is a former journalist in Toronto who's followed, written about, and worked in the disability field for two decades. Explore his many online accessibility resources at his Web site.]
Article 2 of 5 in series
by Joe Clark
Last week, I talked about the needs of people with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments when it comes to using a Mac. In a nutshell, the state of accessibility on the Macintosh is in decline and may become worse under Mac OS X before it gets betterShow full article
Last week, I talked about the needs of people with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments when it comes to using a Mac. In a nutshell, the state of accessibility on the Macintosh is in decline and may become worse under Mac OS X before it gets better. Meanwhile, most people with disabilities are currently better served with Windows-based machines than Macs. (See "Accessibility on the Mac: Trouble in Paradise" in TidBITS-568.)
The Good News -- First off, all the usual advantages Macs enjoy over Windows - consistent, integrated user interface; easy networking; simplicity in installing and removing applications and system enhancements; and visual elegance - remain notable advantages for many disabled users. And there are some clear-cut superlatives, like built-in speech output (and speech recognition, however limited).
If you need to get a disabled coworker, employee, or friend or relative up and running on a Mac, it's usually possible. Your options are more limited than with Windows, but for nearly all relevant disabilities, there's at least something available to reduce or eliminate barriers.
Whether you're looking for Mac or Windows products, your first stop for information should be the long-standing magazine and Web site Closing the Gap, which offers a large searchable resource directory.
Mobility Impairment -- If you need help typing or using the mouse (for example, if you suffer from repetitive strain injury or have multiple sclerosis), you can use Apple's own accessibility software, which you might have to load onto your Mac via a custom install from a Mac OS CD-ROM. You can also download the files directly from Apple.
Sticky Keys and Mouse Keys are the most useful utilities in the package. With Sticky Keys, you can press modifier keys and letter or number keys in sequence instead of together: Command then Shift then Q, for example. Maddeningly, though, Sticky Keys turns itself off if you actually do manage to press a modifier and another key simultaneously (Command-Z, for example, since they're usually close together), thereby making you more disabled than you actually are. Mouse Keys lets you move the mouse by pressing keys on the numeric keypad. (There's a related utility, Mouse Keys for PowerBooks, for machines without numeric keypads.) However, those Apple utilities were always minimal and haven't been significantly improved in half a decade.
Third-party products might be a better option. Tash, Inc.'s $100 SwitchClick is a big, squat cylinder that substitutes for a mouse. You can use it with the $275 MouseMover software to control mouse functions like click, press and hold, or simply moving the mouse in a given direction.
From RJ Cooper comes the $100 SmartClick, software that substitutes for a mouse using a technique called "dwell selection:" you hover the mouse cursor on an object and make a selection with SmartClick's on-screen menus, which is then interpreted as the click, double-click, click-and-drag or similar action of a mouse. To make this function work, you need either a mouse or a trackball, a mouse substitute like Tash's SwitchClick or, even better, a HeadMouse from Origin Systems ($1,890 with USB cable).
With the HeadMouse, you wear a tiny self-adhesive silver dot on your forehead. The HeadMouse hardware, which sits atop your monitor or CPU, sends out twin infrared beams and triangulates the position of the dot on your forehead. Movements of the HeadMouse substitute for the movements of a regular mouse. Putting the HeadMouse and SmartClick together, even a quadriplegic can manipulate the mouse cursor purely through head movements and execute all the usual mouse actions.
For typing, someone with a moderate mobility impairment can use a customized hardware keyboard like the $780 Discover:Kenx (pronounced "Connects") by Don Johnston, Inc. It's a combination keyboard and mouse. If you need a very large keyboard, Don Johnston offers the $500 Discover:Board.
You can also use an onscreen keyboard - conceptually similar to Apple's Key Caps desk accessory - along with adaptive hardware, such as the $100 OnScreen by RJ Cooper.
Hearing Impairment -- The access requirements of deaf and hard-of-hearing people are quite modest given that, even in an age of Napster, computers are largely silent devices that communicate visually. In fact, computers as they stand now themselves provide a form of communications accessibility, since email and instant messaging don't require hearing at all.
There are a few places where audio is important. For instance, beep sounds on the Mac can be converted to menubar flashes by turning the alert sound volume to zero in the Sound control panel.
Forms of multimedia remain a perennial obstacle, and since multimedia now is making increasing inroads into the Internet, we'll wait until a later article to explore the problems and solutions there.
Visual Impairment -- Of the disabilities affected by computer use, visual impairment is the most significant. As we have seen with devices varying as widely as the Palm and a range of tablet computers, Internet refrigerators and whatnot, in real-world use a computer is mostly a display. If you can't see a display, how do you use a computer?
If you have a relatively modest visual impairment, all you may need is screen magnification. The free Apple utility CloseView provides bare-bones magnification, but you get what you pay for. Instead, opt for the $295 InLarge by Alva Access Group, the only screen magnifier of note for Macs. It features 16 magnification levels, three settings for controlling how the magnified portion of the screen moves, the capability to display only the area being magnified, and other options.
Many visually-impaired people find dark text on a brilliant white background unbearable. A very few applications - Web browsers, WordPerfect, Eudora - let you select the foreground and background colours, while the near-ubiquitous Microsoft Word limits you to black-on-white or white-on-blue. The Window Monkey utility lets you assign background colours and patterns to Finder windows.
If you're blind enough that you can't really see a monitor, you need something called a screen reader - a program that reads aloud on-screen text, menus, icons, and the like. Unfortunately, there's only one screen reader for Macintosh, Alva Access Group's $700 OutSpoken 9.
Screen-reader technology is advanced and competitive on Windows, and the three big-name programs there - Jaws, Window-Eyes, and IBM Home Page Reader - are all able to interpret Web sites (more or less accurately) and also interpret the tricks and features of standard application software.
In contrast, the somewhat outdated OutSpoken for Macintosh does not interpret HTML. According to Lou Grosso of Alva Access Group, OutSpoken 9 "will simply read from left to right the text that is on the screen. Web and HTML access will improve tremendously in OutSpoken X which should be released in late 2001." Moreover, Alva Access Group strongly cautions you not to use OutSpoken with Microsoft software. Of course, there are other software alternatives to Microsoft's products, but using them limits one's capability to work on documents in collaborative environments. In the real world, it is regrettably true that anyone who requires a screen reader is better off using Windows, and nearly all blind people do.
OutSpoken remains the only full-featured Mac screen reader comparable to what's available for Windows, but RJ Cooper offers the $95 KeyRead, a kind of mini-screen reader for blind kids $95. In addition, an old Apple utility that dates back to the AV Macs is still available online, in samizdat form. HearIt lets you select nearly any text in nearly any application and listen to it using Macintosh speech output.
On the Mac platform, people with disabilities have relatively few options when it comes to adaptive technology. There are more barriers to using a Mac than there need to be. Nonetheless, disabled Mac aficionados haven't been completely left out in the cold. Here's hoping Apple will acknowledge the strategic (and, increasingly, the legal) importance of actively supporting accessibility in all its forms, improving its own hardware and software and encouraging developers to close the technology gap between the Mac OS and Windows.
[Joe Clark is a former journalist in Toronto who's followed, written about, and worked in the disability field for two decades. Explore his many online accessibility resources at his Web site.]
Article 3 of 5 in series
by Joe Clark
In two previous articles, I explained concepts related to accommodating Macintosh users with disabilities, some of the hardware and software (adaptive technology) available for that purpose, and how Apple has fallen asleep at the switch in recent years when it comes to accessibilityShow full article
In two previous articles, I explained concepts related to accommodating Macintosh users with disabilities, some of the hardware and software (adaptive technology) available for that purpose, and how Apple has fallen asleep at the switch in recent years when it comes to accessibility. (See "Accessibility on the Mac" beginning in TidBITS-568.)
These days, of course, nearly every new Mac sold is connected to the Internet, as are scads of the old ones - even my coelacanth of a machine, a Power Macintosh 7100/66. But the Internet raises entirely new issues when it comes to accessibility, with a crucial new wrinkle: making the Web accessible requires not only important adaptive technology on the Mac owner's part, but also careful design and coding choices by Web authors. If you thought accessibility on the Mac was in bad shape, Web accessibility is worse. On the positive side, things are improving quickly.
Traditional Media -- Let's think of old media for a second. Start with one of the oldest media, the printed book. If you can't read the type on the page due to a visual impairment, you have a few choices:
Wait for a large-print, Braille, or audio tape version to come out (months later, if it happens at all).
Use a magnifier to enlarge the print until it's big enough to read (usually on a big monitor not connected to a computer).
Use a reading machine that scans print and reads it aloud (a near-miraculous technology when Raymond Kurzweil invented it in 1976, now quite commonplace). Reading machines, formerly separate, free-standing equipment, are largely Windows-based now, though the L&H Kurzweil 3000 electronic text reader is available for Macs.
In other words, to make a printed book accessible, you must use something other than the book itself.
On the Web - By contrast, to make a Web site accessible, the site itself must be set up properly and, in most cases, you also must use adaptive technology. An important distinction comes up here between accessibility on the Web and on the Mac in general. Even in the age of Napster and QuickTime, the Web remains essentially a visual medium composed of text and images. Accordingly, the accessibility or inaccessibility of the Web mostly affects blind and visually-impaired people.
Deaf or hard-of-hearing Web-surfers might find an occasional accessibility problem with multimedia, while people with learning disabilities like dyslexia may find reading all that colourful online text difficult, but the extent of these barriers pales in comparison to the simple issue of seeing and understanding the screen.
The World Wide Web Consortium has a very readable site that gives some imaginary examples of people with various disabilities and the ways in which they use the Web.
It's All about Options -- As you undoubtedly know, Web pages are written in a markup language called HTML (though an increasing number of Web pages consist of non-HTML technologies like Flash). The markup gives structure to a document. For example, text in a paragraph goes between <P> and </P> tags. Or an image might reside in an <IMG> tag that contains details like the filename and the image's size.
For a Web page to be accessible, you must include layers of meaning and redundancy. The most common example is adding text to an image - usually in the form of an ALT (for "alternate") attribute which enables text to be included in the IMG tag. If your browser doesn't load graphics, or if you use an adaptive device like the reading machine mentioned earlier, you can rely on the text version rather than an image you can't see. As an easy example, the logo on the TidBITS home page carries the ALT text "TidBITS Electronic Publishing." If your browser loads graphics and if you're not using adaptive technology, you typically never see the ALT text, because you don't need to: you can look at the image instead.
Accessibility, then, is all about options. Can't see a picture, for whatever reason? No problem. We'll give you words to read instead. Unfortunately, simple measures like this are seldom implemented. Web authors are interested in a lot of things: earning their livings, meeting deadlines, showing off, expressing themselves, pleasing their clients. What they are generally not interested in is accessibility. Why?
Unfamiliarity. Generally, Web design books and courses barely mention the issue. Web shops rarely have adaptive technology on hand to test their designs, nor do they do usability testing with disabled people (if they do usability testing at all).
Squeamishness. As explained in previous articles, disability makes people nervous. To code for accessible Web design requires a leap of the imagination - to conceive how, for example, a blind person would navigate your site requires you to imagine being blind yourself.
Despite these problems, designing for accessibility can help even non-disabled populations. Just as level entrances and wheelchair ramps make it easier for someone pushing a stroller to get into and out of a building, an accessible Web site works for old browsers, for people with graphics loading turned off, and for Web-enabled PDAs and cell phones.
Resources -- Yet blame cannot be fully laid at the feet of Web designers or even the clients paying for the Web design work. Put bluntly, the resources available for accessible Web authoring are poor.
The current HTML standard includes many features for accessibility - ALT attributes barely scratch the surface (though they are actually required in the current HTML version, 4.01). The source of these HTML specifications is the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which provides guidelines, checklists, and techniques for making Web pages accessible. However, in the grand tradition of World Wide Web Consortium standards documents, those pages are long, confusing, meandering, and either maddeningly generalized or overly detailed.
There are surprisingly few other online resources for accessible Web authoring. You can find links at the HTML Writers Guild Aware Center and the Web AccessiBlog I maintain.
There are only two books on accessible Web design: Universal Web Design, by Crystal Waters (out of print) and Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities, by Mike Paciello. (Last week I signed a contract with New Riders Publishing to write a competing book.)
In short, it is hard to learn how to code HTML accessibly. And authoring tools like Adobe GoLive, Macromedia Dreamweaver, and even the trusty BBEdit make it difficult to include access features. You usually have to edit the code manually.
Through The Web, Darkly -- The design of Web pages is half the problem; adaptive technology is the other. People with low vision use screen-magnification software like Apple's CloseView utility or InLarge by Alva Access Group.
(Why not just select a very large font size in your Web browser? Don't forget that the browser runs on the Mac. The entire system needs to be accessible. Nice big type on a Web page doesn't help that much if your menu bar fonts and dialog boxes are still using teeny 12 point text. Moreover, due to poor Web-authoring practices, many sites look terrible and are almost unusable with extra-big fonts.)
If you have such poor vision that you can't really see what's on your monitor at all even if magnified, you need a screen reader - a program that reads onscreen text and menus, and interprets icons and other items out loud. However, there is but one screen reader for Macs, OutSpoken by Alva Access Group, and it doesn't interpret HTML. Meanwhile, Windows screen readers are remarkably sophisticated, understanding tables, frames, and many of the HTML access features.
And yet, even well-coded Web sites can remain inaccessible thanks to the fact that no browser fully supports HTML, let alone all of the language's accessibility features.
Netscape 4 is notorious for its incompatibilities, even with HTML tags that were current back in 1997. Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 for Macintosh supposedly supports the entirety of HTML 4, but it isn't true (features like LONGDESC, used for long textual descriptions of images, are absent). The Mozilla project maintains a hefty list of unsupported HTML tags in the new, allegedly standards-compliant Netscape 6.
Meanwhile, the tiny, impressive Web browser iCab has much wider support of HTML 4, including nearly every access tag (LONGDESC is available), though iCab's accessibility support isn't documented.
And of course, with only one screen reader for Macs which, by its maker's admission, does not interpret HTML, the tight browser/screen-reader integration we find on Windows is simply absent on Macs. To put it bluntly, you're lucky if you can get things to work.
When it comes to Web accessibility for Mac users who are blind or have low vision, then, the news is pretty much all bad. In the short term, these people are still better off using Windows. In an upcoming article, I'll address the even trickier issues involved in accessible multimedia. Just what do you do with all those QuickTime movies and Flash animations?
[Joe Clark is a former journalist in Toronto who's followed, written about, and worked in the disability field for two decades. Explore his many online accessibility resources at his Web site.]
Article 4 of 5 in series
by Joe Clark
Last week, I described what it means for a Web site to be accessible to people with disabilities (see "Web Accessibility: Surfing the Web Blind" in TidBITS-571)Show full article
Last week, I described what it means for a Web site to be accessible to people with disabilities (see "Web Accessibility: Surfing the Web Blind" in TidBITS-571). Everything rests on the way Web pages are coded and the adaptive technology a disabled Web surfer uses to read the page. Things are slowly improving, but conditions are not good in general. Web accessibility essentially refers to access for blind and visually-impaired people, but few Web authors even know about accessibility, and fewer still take the time to do things right. Meanwhile, with only one screen reader (a program that reads text, menus, and the like aloud) available for Macs - and which doesn't work well with Web sites - blind computer users are better off using Windows.
But all that pertains to Web sites containing nothing but text and graphics. What about sites reliant on those sexy QuickTime movies or Flash animations?
Multimedia Access -- Any kind of online video presents severe accessibility problems by being inaccessible to the deaf (who can't hear the audio) and to the blind (who can't see the video).
What to do? Here we must borrow a trick or two from older media. Television and film have grappled with accessibility for decades, and since the forces of convergence are trying to make the Internet look a lot like television, the lessons are transferable.
You make video accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers through captioning: transcription of dialogue and rendition of other relevant sounds. Captioning isn't the same as subtitling - among other differences, subtitles are often used for language translation (captions use the same language as the audio) and subtitles render only speech, and not always all of it, either.
Captions are usually "closed" - you need a decoder to make them visible. Canada, the United States, and a select few other regions use one system (called Line 21), while Europe and pretty much everywhere else use a different system (called World System Teletext). The systems are incompatible, but then again, telecasts themselves are incompatible between continents. Gary Robson's Caption FAQ will tell you more.
If captions are part of the original video footage and can't be turned off, they are said to be "open." There isn't much open captioning these days, while nearly all subtitling is open. More than just video can be captioned: captioning in first-run movie theatres is up and running, but hard to find.
Meanwhile, you can make video accessible to blind and visually-impaired viewers through audio description, in which a narrator, working from a tightly honed script, describes out loud the character movements, settings, costumes, titles, and other visual information needed to understand what's really going on. The descriptions are usually delivered during natural pauses in dialogue. The largest sources of audio description are on television - on PBS and the Turner Classic Movies channel, both in the United States. WGBH, Boston's public broadcasting channel, and The Kennedy Center offer a taste of audio description online.
If you can play Region 1 DVDs, you can watch subtitles and listen to audio descriptions on the only DVDs with audio description, Terminator 2 and Basic Instinct. (They work fine on a DVD-capable Mac.) Also, a new three-disc DVD set from PBS, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, is due in March 2001 featuring captions, DVD subtitles, audio descriptions, and, for the first time, audiovisual interface menus.
Sounds good, doesn't it? But there are a few hiccups.
There is no longstanding production experience in multimedia accessibility. Captioning and DVD subtitling is comparatively cheap - in the hundreds of dollars an hour range - but if your site isn't affiliated with a rich television network or production studio, that figure ceases to be cheap. Audio description is cheap only in movie-budget terms, running about $10,000 per motion picture. Costs will continue to go down, but only gradually. Another complication linked to the knowledge gap: multimedia authors should not try to caption, subtitle, describe, or dub their own productions, because they're virtually guaranteed to get it wrong. So authors are stuck: the quality won't be up to snuff if they try to do it in-house on the cheap, but outside services cost good money, and very few do work for online media.
Online systems for closed captioning and audio description are poorly supported. It is possible to embed captions in a QuickTime movie, and there's an entire HTML-like syntax for marking up captions and audio descriptions (called Synchronized Media Interchange Language or SMIL), but incompatibilities are rife. There are so many online video players out there (QuickTime, RealVideo, Windows Media, etc.), with so many versions, that you cannot rely on your visitor to have the right plug-in or software. Plus, Apple's documentation for SMIL support in QuickTime 4.1 spends a lot of time explaining how it can be used to embed advertising but no time discussing accessibility applications.
Making audio descriptions hidden (so you can turn them on and off) is difficult or impossible in the various online formats. In any event, closed accessibility is unnecessary in multimedia. With technologies like Akamai that distribute large files over many servers to speed up delivery times, and with disk space so cheap these days, it makes more sense to offer separate versions of an online video with open access features that can't be turned off. You simply select a captioned (or subtitled, or described, or dubbed) version from a menu and that's the one you watch.
Another hiccup is that nobody's making captioned or audio-described video. Period. It just isn't happening. Virtually all the "content" that's available takes the form of brief demonstration projects.
Why not? There are very few tools. Adobe Premiere and similar authoring programs don't let you create captions and audio descriptions. (You can kludge together some titles, but how long are you going to put up with a kludge?) One specialized tool, MAGpie, works only on Windows.
Existing companies and organizations that caption and describe TV shows and videos are generally incapable of doing the same for online media. The Caption Center and the Descriptive Video Service at WGBH are pretty much the only options.
The Knowledge Gap -- But the technical issues are nothing compared to the knowledge gap. Captioning and audio description (and two related techniques, subtitling and dubbing) are fiendishly difficult. You thought designing Web pages was hard? Captioning isn't anything remotely resembling simple transcription, and have you ever tried to sum up a scene of your favourite TV show in five seconds or less? There are, moreover, no training materials or courses available to teach captioning, audio description, subtitling, or dubbing (save for one limited course in description in the U.K.).
Two recent technologies, Macromedia's Flash and burning your own DVDs, have thrown a spotlight on the knowledge gap.
Flash, the nearly ubiquitous, widely misused multimedia authoring tool, has single-handedly spawned an Internet catchphrase: "Skip intro." Flash animations are inaccessible, period. There is no way for a screen reader or other adaptive technology to interpret Flash "content." Even demonstration projects in Flash, such as one at the University of Toronto's SNOW (Special Needs Opportunity Windows) project, access come equipped with a range of instructions and caveats.
Macromedia has, however, finally admitted it has a problem, and the company now maintains impressive-looking pages devoted to Flash accessibility. Unfortunately, having read all the Macromedia materials and spoken at length with the fellow running the access project, it is pretty clear that Macromedia does not itself understand the issues involved with access, let alone the difficulty of training Flash authors. And even if the technology provided bulletproof, reliable access to alternate versions of Flash content (like captioned or described variants), Flash artists have no training materials or programs available to learn how to create the alternate versions.
Then there is the capability to burn your own DVDs. Steve Jobs made a big splash earlier this year at Macworld Expo San Francisco 2001 with iDVD and DVD Studio Pro, Apple's software that lets consumers and professionals assemble and record their own DVDs using the SuperDrive available on high-end Power Mac G4s. DVD Studio Pro lets you encode multiple audio tracks and subtitle streams. That's great, however, just because you can add these features to your DVD media doesn't guarantee accessibility. Poorly done captions and descriptions can be worse than none at all.
What about Napster? No discussion of multimedia on the Web would be complete without addressing Internet radio stations, Napster, and anything else that's audio-only. Here the group chiefly affected is deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Although music videos on television and home video in North America can be and are closed-captioned (they're audio-visual), there's no way to make traded music files accessible.
Online audio files that contain speech, however, can be transcribed, and indeed this is the preferred method for academic lectures (think electronic learning ventures) and literary readings. It is conceivable to encode visible captions in a QuickTime stream that includes audio only, but no one's doing it. (You can also encode the transcript as a SMIL file, with attendant incompatibilities and knowledge-gap issues.)
Another issue is the accessibility of plug-ins themselves. Streaming audio is attractive to blind and visually-impaired people, but you still need to control the QuickTime (or RealAudio or Windows Media) player, probably using a screen reader and keyboard commands. QuickTime keyboard equivalents on the Mac are skimpy and controlling QuickTime media often requires direct manipulation of images a blind person couldn't necessarily see. RealPlayer Plus keyboard shortcuts are extensive, though more so on Windows. If Windows Media Player has any keyboard shortcuts at all, they're not documented online.
Nothing but Trouble -- So there's trouble in paradise when it comes to accessibility. Everywhere you look - adaptive software and hardware, Apple's own corporate support, developer commitment, Web design, browsers, multimedia - on Windows, the situation is always at least noticeably less bad and often clearly superior.
Discouraging, all this. But it doesn't have to be this way. After twenty years of watching captioned, described, dubbed, and subtitled TV, writing about it, lecturing and hectoring over it, and obsessing over it, I know from experience that a certain minority of non-disabled people really get accessible media.
Try it yourself: watch all your television and home video with captions (or DVD subtitles) turned on for a good two weeks. (No cheating. Two weeks. Nearly all recent televisions come equipped with caption-decoding chips in North America, Europe, and elsewhere.) You'll quickly find you have developed new skills in reading, listening, and watching simultaneously. There's modest experimental evidence that even people entirely new to captioning become proficient at understanding TV even with the new information track.
By the way, in North America deaf captioning viewers are now the minority. Even with the poor typographic quality of captions and DVD subtitles, and the many technical limitations, watching a video stream with captions or subtitles is a much richer experience.
But you know what would really help? Some mojo from Steve Jobs. What odds do you give that Steve Jobs is the kind of person who truly gets accessible media, or would get it if properly introduced? Jobs is already a media tycoon and an evangelist for desktop movies on the Mac. He needs a few demonstrations of what accessible media - and, for that matter, adaptive technology - can do on a Macintosh. Would he then get religion and bring all of his powers of expression to bear, making it cool?
With that kind of imprimatur, wouldn't we finally see some real action on the issue of accessibility on the Macintosh?
Article 5 of 5 in series
by Joe Clark
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 disabilitiesShow full article
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).]