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Ask Skype to Become More Accessible!

March 13, 2005 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Skype is a revolutionary new way to communicate on the Internet using your voice. Voice contact between Internet users is free of charge, while it is possible to place calls to regular telephones at extremely competitive discount rates. Skype is able to effectively work around most firewalls and other challenging network configurations that stop other voice over Internet solutions dead in their tracks.

Naturally, Skype is an excellent candidate for adoption as the voice communication solution of choice for the blind community. Sadly, despite numerous attempts to communicate with Skype concerning accessibility, each new release of the Skype software seems to be moving in the wrong direction, away from accessibility! Increasing awareness of accessibility is always the first step to positive change, and Skype is certainly no exception. Blind Access Journal is sending the following letter to Skype requesting that attention be paid to the accessibility of its software to all current and potential users, including those of us whom happen to be blind.

March 13, 2005

Dear Skype Management Team:

The Skype voice over Internet software represents a revolution in voice communications technology on the Internet. Its ability to provide high quality audio while working around firewalls and other challenging network configurations has the potential to reduce complexity and increase the usability of voice over Internet technologies for everyone, including Internet users whom happen to be blind or visually impaired. I am a blind information technology professional, accessibility advocate and publisher of the Blind Access Journal found at http://www.blindaccessjournal.com. The purpose of this letter is to request that Skype show leadership by integrating accessibility into the design of its software so that all may participate in the voice over Internet revolution.

Creating and maintaining reasonable accessibility need not be difficult nor costly, especially for the talented programmers employed by your company. I would like to make the following recommendations to improve the accessibility of Skype:

  • Enable tab and shift+tab navigation among all program controls, fields and other elements.
  • Enable arrow key navigation and Windows keyboard support in all fields such as edit boxes, combo boxes and lists.
  • Enable the option of using a Windows standard focus or highlight bar to indicate selection in the contact list and other places in the program as appropriate.
  • Use standard Window classes for all controls or implement Microsoft Active Accessibility to provide this information to assistive technology.
  • Include text labels for all graphics in the program.

There are tens of thousands of current and potential Skype users in the blind community. Your software is a natural fit for blind people, who are always looking for affordable international voice communication technology. We are concerned that, with each new version of Skype, the program is actually becoming less and less accessible. There is a small group of blind programmers who are feverishly working to maintain a set of script files for the popular JAWS for Windows screen reading application. As each new Skype release changes the user interface, these scripts break, must be revised and distributed to all affected users. While Skype is less complex than other solutions for sighted users, this need to constantly update a set of scripts that can’t even provide access to all Skype features increases the complexity of Skype for blind users to a level that is simply unattainable by most. As we have observed the design of each new Skype release become less and less accessible, we are concerned that a point will soon be reached where the maintenance of the scripts will become impossible and we will be permanently locked out of the Skype revolution. It is also critical to serve the thousands of blind people not using the JAWS screen reader, for whom the scripts are unable to help.

I ask you to show your leadership on the Internet. Please work cooperatively and proactively with us to insure the ability of everyone to use the Skype software and all associated free and fee based services. I look forward to a response from someone on your management team in the very near future. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Darrell Shandrow

Blind Access Journal

I am now asking you to write and send a similar letter to Skype. I am hopeful that our requests for greater accessibility will receive attention if we all make our voices heard. Follow Skype’s report a problem with Skype link and contact Customer Service to submit your letter. It is highly encouraged that you submit at least a problem report, even if you have only used Skype’s free services. We are strongly urging you to submit both a problem report and customer service feedback if you have ever placed a call using the Skype Out service. This is an opportunity for us all to participate in an effort to gain greater accessibility to information technology. I expect everyone to rise to the occasion and squeak this wheel as loud as possible!

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2 opinions on “Ask Skype to Become More Accessible!

  1. Just letting you know that you have been heard inside Skype. Hopefully we’ll see accessibility enhancements soon.

  2. Hello Darrell,

    It was very informative reading your article on Skype and accessibility.

    It would be really awesome for you to envision for us some user-stories of blind or disabled users using Skype. A ‘user-story’ is simply a short paragraph that describes a single situation of a user interacting with a system to reach a goal. Let me provide a short example:
    Kate, a working mom, configures her own “family” presence settings so that her husband and children can know her whereabouts throughout the day (and she know theirs). These presence settings are only visible between users in their defined group “the Joneses”.

    Kate also has a webpage that displays different information depending on who’s looking: If they are unknown, they see her ad site, where her “Professional” image, resume and service offerings are shown (along with her “professional presence setting), and samples of her best designs. Her clients can also see her presence, next to a more casual image with a sharepoint for their designs and shared documents. Her friends, on the other hand, see her “funny picture” and swap their best recipies and jokes. Her presence to them appears as offline while she is in collaboration with a client.

    While I realize the above story has nothing whatsoever to do with being blind of visually impaired, neither have I the experience (of course I’ve never been a working Mom either!) But maybe you can shed a little light by envisioning some scenarios like those above where Skype is optimized to help you.

    Again, it was really illuminating to read your blog!

    John

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