JAWS 6.1 was just released this afternoon. Sadly, this upgrade has crippled support for MSN Messenger 6.2 and does not work well at all with the newest MSN Messenger 7.0 released just yesterday! There are other examples (ACT, Goldmine, Quicken) of applications for which support was previously created, but allowed to fall by the wayside due to lack of ongoing maintenance. I’m picking on JAWS for the simple reason that this is the screen reader about which I happen to have the greatest level of experience and knowledge. I suspect that the developers of other screen readers also encounter similar challenges from time to time.

We are blind. That means we are physically unable to read the printed text and view the graphics displayed on the screen. We must depend on screen readers to obtain and provide the necessary information in a format we are able to use: Braille and/or speech output. Our computers are completely useless to us when our screen readers aren’t running or are unable to support our use of critical software found in the classroom, the workplace or the home.

I and many other blind computer users have experienced, time and again, the consequences of software that is not supported by our screen reader. Those hardships can range from simple inconvenience to outright loss of employment! Within just the past two years, I have experienced the following significant issues, among many others not listed, with my screen reader, most of which have resulted in the reduction of my ability to perform the duties of my position as a technical support engineer:

  • JAWS does not work with Siebel CRM versions 7.0 or 7.5 when they have been implemented in “high interactivity” mode. We have not been able to successfully convince our customers to make a “standard interactivity” Siebel implementation available. Our outsourcing arrangements mean that we are in no position to compel our customers to make these necessary changes. This state of affairs resulted in my reassignment to more accessible, less technical duties. Though I couldn’t ask for better accomodations and understanding of the situation, I feel it has placed a black mark on my ability to advance with my current employer.
  • JAWS does not work with a critical security management application based on Sun Java. Again, we are in no position to compel its developer to make the necessary accessibility changes that would enable it to work with JAWS and Sun’s Java Access Bridge.
  • There are a couple of Java based web administration interfaces provided by one of our customers to which I have no access. Critical elements are totally invisible to JAWS! It is incredibly fortunate that I rarely need to use these systems, and I am able to obtain sighted assistance on the rare occasion I must perform a task involving them.
  • On occasion, I still find a document (PDF, Microsoft E-Book, some other format) that is overly secured or requires use of an inaccessible piece of reading software.

Should mainstream hardware and software manufacturers become more accessible? Absolutely! Yes! Accessibility is always best implemented when there is a spirit of cooperation between the assistive technology industry and the creators of the mainstream technology on which our sighted peers rely. When that cooperation does not exist, our screen reader developers ought to be doing their best to fill that void, enabling us to retain and enhance opportunities for education and employment in the process.

In order for those of us in the blind community to gain and retain employment, we must insist that the developers of our assistive technology do two critical things:

  1. Innovate by creating support for a large, highly diverse pool of thousands of computer software applications used in the classroom, the workplace and the home.
  2. Help us continue productively participating in society by feverishly working to maintain accessibility to these applications as they are upgraded and changed by their developers.

Yes. I know. What I am proposing is definitely a “tall order”. It is quite a challenge, indeed, but one we must meet head on! Please feel free to comment not only on the merits of my statements but also on any specific actions we can take as a blind community to increase the accessibility our screen readers are able to provide to all the technology we must use on a daily basis!