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Microsoft Outlook Web Access Is Not…

January 14, 2005 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

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.

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4 opinions on “Microsoft Outlook Web Access Is Not…

  1. My particular situation is now resolved. When the user logs in to Outlook Web Access 2003, a choice between “basic” and “premium” functionality is presented. The default choice is “premium”, enabling all functions. The “basic” choice is intended for users with slow Internet connections or those of us with accessibility needs. This information can be found in the help system for Outlook Web Access. Choosing “basic” functionality enables me to exchange e-mail and thus to effectively use this application to perform the duties of my job.

    Though my immediate needs have been satisfied, I remain troubled with this method of providing accessibility. If I must use Outlook Web Access, I am permitted to use only a limited subset of all the application’s features, which ultimately comes down to the ability to exchange electronic mail. If I needed to take advantage of premium features such as scheduling, I would still find myself in trouble with respect to my ability to perform the duties of my job.

    The implementation of accessibility for only “basic” use of Outlook Web Access is similar to the provision of a separate, “accessible” web site. When web developers decide to provide this segregated accomodation, the “accessible” site often lacks some of the features of the regular site and is often subject to poor maintenance and content obsolescence. It ultimately turns out that, because we are blind and are thus in need of a special, accessible feature, we are granted capabilities that are incomplete and of lower quality than those enjoyed by our sighted peers. In the 1960’s, we finally stopped segregating blacks and other minorities by deciding that “separate but equal” was unacceptable. The reason for this move was clear: separate usually means inferior, not equal! The same is true for those of us who happen to be blind. We are fully living and breathing “premium” human beings, possessing the same rights and responsibilities as our sighted peers. That means we need “premium” not just “basic” access to the information technology we must use to get work done.

  2. Yes, this is unfortunate. Microsoft even told the Assistive Technology Team at the U.S. Department of Education that the Basic version of the Outlook Web Access tool was their answer to making Outlook Web Access accessible. We responded that separate but not equal would not fly. When will people get it?

    Don Barrett

  3. Which features of the “premium” implementation of Outlook Web Access does the Department of Education use which are not available in “basic” mode? Does the lack of these features significantly impact your ability to perform the duties of your job? If so, please tell us how.

  4. as a new user (so all Jaws may not be familiar) I would say that the “basic” system is
    – excruciatingly slow
    – where high volume mail requires many deletes, the tick a box and go back is tedious, especially as the ticks are all lost if you do something like read a message, and more so because
    – with a large number of folders there is little message space, and a long trek to the delete button

    Has anyone found a jaws route to the list of messages in “premium”?

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