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Lucy Greco

  Accessibility in Education


Who is Responsible for all the Inaccessible Technology in the World? - Part I

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When there are several accessible software and technologies in the market, why do we continue to use inaccessible devices, asks Lucy Greco.

Screen readers have been on the market for almost 35 years. Access to software has always been problematic. I remember using my first screen reader in the ‘80s. My first computer was an Apple 2E with an echo PC synthesizer. This computer ran with proprietary software that allowed the blind person use of a customized word processor that worked with the synthesizer; today we would call it a self-voicing application.  At the time, word processing had begun to have some of the same easy-to-use features that we are all familiar with and expect today. However, the application I used "Braille edit" did not have a spellchecker. In fact, for formatting, I needed to know special symbols and codes to include in my text if I wanted to do any type of formatting. For example I would type $l for a carriage return and $p for a paragraph.

Accessible device for special education

SmartEd Services’ Touch Accessible Platform for Interactive Technology, TAP∙it

Today much of the mainstream market is accessible, at least to a degree. Blind people using assistive technologies can expect that their assistive technology will work within the same applications that their peers are using. A blind person can use a word processor, spreadsheet or database applications most of the time with little or low difficulty. However, the less common an application, the less likely a blind user will be able to access it.

Often I hear people ask ‘so why is there inaccessible software when we have known for so long how screen readers work?’ The more I think about this particular question, the more I realize that in many ways we are to blame. My own office relies on a database for our internal use that we would never expect our students to use. The most popular screen reader to date, which is the one I am using as I write this, has administrative tools for the networking version that the screen reader itself cannot read.  Yes, a screen reader that cannot read its own utilities!  A blind administrator such as myself needs to work within the networking tools using workarounds and jury-rigging. In fact, with Microsoft Windows 8 to be released soon, it will still be the only operating system I am aware of that does not have an accessible installer. I had to put off a major upgrade for a couple of weeks while I waited for assistance to set up a new Windows installation.

With all the problems I have mentioned above, I bet you are wondering, ‘why does she use this screen reader or why does she use Windows?’ The answer is that to compete in this market, what choice do I have? However, those choices put me in a situation where I have caused more inaccessible products to be released. It would be ideal if I could tell the manufacturer of my screen reader that I won't buy his products until his administrative tools are accessible and then have all the thousands of other users approach their vendors with the same request. But if I were to say it and nobody else were around to back me, en masse, what good would it do?

The database that our office uses internally is a very popular product. Several departments on campus have different versions of the same product. The product is somewhat affordable and easier for non-technical people to use. Can I ask every single department on campus to stop using this database, and if I did tell them that, would they listen? I can't make statements that put my individual needs over the needs of many non-technical staff who need to track students as much as I need to. 

And if I did speak up and make some people stop using the product, how would this affect the non-technical people? As an individual with a disability, I would need to be much more important to affect the market more than the many thousands of non-technical administrative assistants. If disabled persons had more influence, perhaps we would have fewer inaccessible products. But the sheer numbers just don't work. I look again at my campus and from what I know, there are only six blind staff members on campus of a staff of 20,000-30,000. How can six people affect that many? Instead we are given readers and other tools that end up costing our employers a great deal of money and effort to accommodate us. To equip a workstation for a blind copy writer with Braille can cost upwards of USD 6,000 on top of the same expenses for the able-bodied copy writer. Braille displays are extraordinarily high priced and screen readers cost hundreds of dollars.
Lucy GrecoLucy Greco is a blind advocate for accessible technology. An Assistive Technology Specialist at UC Berkeley, San Francisco Bay Area, Greco is the user of various assistive technologies since the early 1980s. She is passionate about the ways technology makes the world more accessible to everyone but especially to individuals with disabilities.
Related Blog: To Click or Not to Click: Use of Clickers in Classrooms by Lucy Greco. Read here.
Related Event: G3ict at ITU WSIS Forum 2012 | Geneva, Switzerland | May 14-18, 2012. Event details.
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