Anyone who is aware of trends in adaptive technology is at least peripherally aware of the current dilemma with access to graphical user interfaces. The GUI access issue has been slowly and steadily costing people their jobs and livelihoods, not to mention a lot of sobering nail biting. There is still a lot of fear and confusion in the community. The stakes are high, and we're playing for keeps! As a blind person, I am gravely concerned about the developments in access to graphical user interfaces. As project director for an equipment loan program, I see real people impacted by this issue every day on the job. In order to combat the GUI obstacle, I armed my consumers and myself with the most powerful screen readers as they entered the market. I have worked with and tested all of the graphical screen readers using speech output. These evaluations have been an interesting process fraught with fear, hope, and painful progress. I am pleased to see that Windows 3.x screen readers in general are becoming more sophisticated and robust, although many perhaps unsolvable problems remain with the current Windows operating system. Our best hope is with the new Windows 95 platform, which should be released by the time you read these words. I am also pleased to report that Microsoft is making major changes to the Windows 95 operating system to make it more accessible across the board to persons with disabilities. The bad news is that these sweeping changes will take two to three years to complete. The list of changes was made evident at a ground breaking conference sponsored by the Redmond software behemoth.
In July, I attended the Access to Windows 95 conference, held at Microsoft Corporation in Washington State. As its title implies, the conference focused on efforts being made by Microsoft to make its Windows 95 operating system more accessible to persons with disabilities. Access by blind and visually impaired users was a prominent topic at the conference as blind access poses the greatest challenge to Windows developers. At the conference, Microsoft staff informed us that it would take two to three years to make Windows 95 and its applications fully accessible. This sounds like a long time to wait, but the work that remains to be done is staggering.
The first step is to imbed the necessary hooks and functions into Windows 95 to enable speech, Braille, and large print access packages. These hooks have to be tested and proven in real world applications with a new generation of adaptive hardware and software written specifically for Windows 95.
OFF SCREEN MODEL
Microsoft is also writing code to make the lives of adaptive software developers a lot easier. An off-screen-model (OSM) is currently under construction to assist screen access utilities. the OSM will keep track of what is on the screen, giving a screen reader an accurate list of objects to query. The OSM will not be available until the middle of 1996.
OTHER ACCESS FEATURES
Microsoft is also building additional access features into Windows 95, such as a screen magnifier, captioning and description hooks, alternative keyboard and mouse assistants, and more. Future plans include voice command and control functionality. The good news is that the current suite of access features will not be a clumsy add-on but will be part of the default installation package.
GUI SCREEN READERS
Below is a list of the available GUI screen readers that are currently shipping from their respective companies. I have included a brief description of each product, as well as company contact information. You are urged to contact the various vendors for more specific information. This is intended only as a capsule summary of the products currently available, and does not include products that are undergoing beta testing. Included are screen readers that run under Windows and OS/2 as well as Macintosh platforms. …