Closing the Windows on Opportunity

By Norman Coombs

Sequence: Volume 30, Number 2


Release Date: March/April 1995

The personal computer, when modified with special
hardware and software, has opened up exciting and empowering new
worlds of education and employment for persons with varying
disabilities. Speech synthesis provides spoken output for users who
are blind. Screen-enlarging software enables persons with limited
vision to read a computer monitor. People with varying motor
disabilities can use alternate input systems to enable their using
computers. These include modified keyboards and sip-and-puff
straws that let the user input Morse code signals into the computer
simulating the keyboard. Single switch devices in conjunction with
appropriate software permit someone to operate a computer with the
use of only one muscle. Voice recognition lets others control a
computer by speech. Some of these systems also enhance the
computer use for persons with cognitive and learning disabilities.
I am a blind history professor, and while I functioned
professionally for years without a computer, the use of an adapted
computer has dramatically increased my independence and my
professional output. Students submit their work to me in e-mail,
which my computer and synthesizer read to me, freeing me from
dependence on a human reader. Simultaneously, it positioned me to
be in the forefront of educators integrating computing and
information technology into the teaching process.
This new technology also provides me access to an
encyclopedia, a dictionary, newspapers, magazines, and scholarly
monographs. In this respect I am not unique. Many persons with
disabilities have found new employment and professional
advancement opportunities as a result of computer technology. This
technology has gone a long way to level the playing field in both
education and in employment, particularly when the work is
centered in the information technologies. It is by far the most
liberating and empowering technology to come along for many
decades.
The rapid adoption of the graphical user interface (gui) is
threatening all these advances and could restrict or totally cancel
many of these advances, especially for blind computer users. Speech
output systems have relied on character-based computer displays.
Windows relies on icons and graphical representations. Already,
numbers of visually impaired users have lost employment or have
had their positions downgraded to positions with less responsibility
and no opportunity for advancement. Others find their work
becoming much more difficult and requiring them to seek special
treatment from their employer so that they can continue to function
in this new environment.
Developers of screen-reading software are all working on
packages that will permit speech output from a Windows gui
interface. Half a dozen are already commercially available and work
with varying degrees of success. However, because the Windows
operating system has not had adequate hooks built into it for screen
reader access, and because the applications do not follow standards
in their use of graphics, the screen readers have great difficulty in
providing thoroughly reliable access for the blind user. Charles
Crawford, Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind, said that
Despite the best efforts of a number of manufacturers . . . it has been
a well-intentioned but dismal failure.
Microsoft's release of Windows95 later this year signals the
industry's continuing move toward a mainly gui interface technology.
As the major operating system developer, Microsoft is in a position to
determine whether the operating system will readily support screen
reading software or not. Greg Lowney, Microsoft's senior program
manager for matters affecting the disabled computer community
admitted that Windows95 will not contain adequate code to make
future Windows-based programs accessible to the blind. This lack led
the National Council of State Agencies Serving the Blind to pass a
resolution urging that all state agencies avoid the use of inaccessible
gui interfaces unless Microsoft immediately standardizes its
Windows Applications Program Interface routines and requires
developers to use it as a method of affording adaptive equipment
manufacturers with the necessary software hooks to make the
graphical user interface accessible . . . . The resolution, passed at a
convention in Tampa last November, also urges the federal
government to become more aggressive in applying both the 1973
Rehabilitation Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act in matters
related to computer and information technology access.
Colleges and universities also need to examine the impact of
moving to a Windows environment and its effect on access to
education for students with disabilities. As educators we have a
desire to share our knowledge with the maximum number of
students, and we are dedicated to empower these students to live a
life that is full and enriched. Providing a key to such a life for
students with disabilities is a special and unique privilege. It is not in
our interest nor in theirs to needlessly create new barriers where we
have removed old ones. Moreover, a recent court case involving the
U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and the Los Rios
Community College District resulted in a Letter of Finding specifically
requiring that the school provide access to computers and
information technology. By adopting a gui interface, universities will
be moving from a less restrictive to a more restrictive environment.
How the courts would decide if such a case were initiated is not clear,
but schools need to think about this before making major new
software investments.
The Internet is also making increasing use of graphics and
graphical interfaces. Mosaic, one of the most popular Internet tools,
relies heavily on graphics and is almost inaccessible to a blind user. I
have been able to utilize Lynx, which is more text-oriented, to
navigate the web world but fear that graphical interfaces may
become dominant. Fortunately, when the National Center for
Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-
Champaign, the producers of Mosaic, realized the results of what they
had done, they became eager to redesign it and provide more
genuinely, universal access. Joseph Hardin says his group, which
developed and maintains Mosaic, is working on that flaw and several
others related to access for people with disabilities including hooks
that could support captions for audio clips.
Those of us now enjoying the power of an adapted computer
applaud the attitude of developers such as those responsible for
Mosaic. The White House also has a World Wide Web site that has
been consciously created with the needs of disabled computer users
in mind. Our hope and plea is that operating systems developers like
Microsoft will also begin to pursue an aggressive policy of providing
access or the hooks required by access software. Meantime, we urge
information technology providers to avoid purchasing software that
will close the window on persons with disabilities and thereby help
us to obtain more cooperation from hardware and software
developers. Our newly found power and independence is valuable to
us, and we dearly want to protect it.
EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) was founded
under the Educom umbrella and now is also affiliated with the
American Association for Higher Education. EASI is dedicated to
assisting colleges and universities with information on how to make
their facilities accessible to students and faculty with disabilities.

Norman Coombs is a professor of history at the Rochester Institute of
Technology and chair of EASI: Equal Access to Software and
Information. nrcgsh@ritvax.isc.rit.edu



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