Microsoft Outlook Web Access is a web based interface to the features of the popular Outlook component of the Microsoft Office software suite. It provides a secure method for a company’s sighted employees to perform tasks such as exchanging e-mail, managing contacts and scheduling. Sadly, this appears to exclude the blind, as this web application presents huge barriers to those of us who rely on screen reading software to use our computers.

My employer would like to tap me to provide some backup coverage for one of our customers. I am only able to act in a backup role since the customer’s Siebel implementation is already known to be inaccessible. The customer uses Outlook Web Access to provide secure front end access to their Microsoft Exchange server without exposing their internal network to undue outside risk. Gaining access to the company’s Exchange server to enable me to use the full Microsoft Outlook client software is out of the question, as the customer is not going to provide us with access to a VPN tunnel in to their internal network. Since we are on an outsourcing basis, we are in absolutely no position to pressure our customer to cooperate.

I have checked out a number of Outlook Web Access implementations, finding them all to be similarly inaccessible. Though the web pages appear to be readable with JAWS, simple tasks such as selecting and reading a message simply do not work. Several blind colleagues verify that Outlook Web Access is currently not accessible to us. We are surprised and disappointed in Microsoft’s oversight in the design of this critical productivity application. I strongly urge everyone to read Microsoft’s “commitment” to accessibility, then send e-mail to Microsoft’s accessibility group and provide online feedback registering your concerns about the need for accessibility to Outlook Web Access and all other Microsoft products and services. Outlook Web Access is considered to be a secure enhancement to the Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Office products. It is being widely implemented in businesses and government agencies. Access to applications of this nature is absolutely critical to our current and future employability. We also believe it is mandated by the United States government under Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act, which requires that the government purchase information technology products and services that are accessible over those that are not.

If you have devised a solution to gain access to Microsoft Outlook Web Access, please post a comment right away. Your answers will be critical to those of us who are struggling with this application. Please keep in mind that there is no way to gain access to the actual Exchange server, so suggesting use of the full Microsoft Outlook application is not a workable solution.