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Opening Windows Closes Doors

Like most people in North America, I watched with mingled astonishment, amusement, admiration and disgust as Windows 95 was released. The Rolling Stones song "Start Me Up" which Microsoft purchased as a theme blared incessantly. Even the CN Tower was draped in a huge Windows 95 banner.

Unlike most North Americans, I found myself wondering what all of this would mean for blind people. Would Windows 95 help us?

In the 1960's, it was decided that blind people could be trained as Computer Programmers. This was the era when information was keypunched onto cards and fed to the computer via a card reader. Computers were huge machines. They were a mystery to all but a very few initiates.

The blind people who were trained as programmers did their own keypunching, but they depended on sighted people to read computer printouts. Then someone discovered that the "period" on the large computer lineprinters could punch raised dots on paper if the ribbon was removed from the printer. With some very ingenious programming, the computer and its printer were able to produce rudimentary Braille documents. They were embossed on very thin paper and the spacing of the Braille cells was not precisely correct, but the output was good enough to permit blind programmers to read their own printouts.

In the '70's, punchcards gradually gave way to computer terminals. Blind programmers used readers to check their input. The optacon, a device which reproduced the shapes of print material on a vibrating tactile screen permitted independent (albeit slow) access to the computer screen. The first high speed Braille embosser became available in the late 1970's. It cost $15,000 US and was prone to mechanical breakdown, but it was a real boon to programmers who were able to get access to it. Synthetic computer speech made its first appearance at about the same time and was incorporated into the first computer terminal for the blind. Still, even with all of these technological advances, blind programmers wondered if changing technology would put them out of work.

It was in the early 1980's that the computer began to make its appearance in homes. Apple computers made it possible for individuals to harness the power of the computer. They were within the financial reach of many middle class individuals and they could be operated by people with little or no programming background. Several inventive blind entrepreneurs combined synthetic speech with the power of the Apple computer and produced systems for blind users. Most of these were programs written specifically for speech. A few blind users ran commercial software with speech, but most preferred the ease of programs written especially for the blind user.

Work was also done on computers which used the CPM operating system. The Osborne and Zorba computers were both used with speech. Again, these were programs designed especially for blind users. The DecTalk speech synthesizer was originally manufactured to work with DEC's CPM-based Rainbow computer.

The real computer revolution was fueled by the arrival of the PC. MS-DOS, the PC's operating system quickly became the standard and those selling computers for the blind wasted little time in adapting. It took three or four years to make PC access efficient with speech, but the problems were solved. Employment for the blind was no longer limited to computer programming. Blind people could be found operating DOS based systems to do such jobs as order taking, word processing, customer service, accounting and more. For the first time in history, blind people could conceive of a world of equal access to the written word.

Then, in the early 1990's, an ominous trend began. The technical term for it is Graphical User Interface (GUI). In plain English, GUI's are icons or pictures on the computer screen. The Apple Macintosh was the first widely used GUI computer system.

Traditional computers used a code known as ASCII for encoding information. The 256 ASCII characters are standard and easily translated into speech or Braille. A GUI program, even one for writing text, divides the computer screen into thousands of points of light called pixels. By choosing which pixel to illuminate, the programs literally draw letters and symbols on the screen. The variety of print fonts and graphic styles make GUI's very attractive for the sighted. But, because speech synthesizers or Braille devices cannot interpret the infinite variety of pixel combinations, GUI's are totally inaccessible to the blind.

Once again, those involved in computer access for blind people were forced to play catch-up. This time, however, the potential losers were not a handful of computer programmers. Thousands of blind people in non-technical jobs had come to rely upon the computer. Everyone from pizza order takers to medical transcriptionists could lose their jobs if no solution was found to the GUI problem.

We cannot hide our heads in the silicon and yearn for the good old days of MS DOS

A number of companies have developed software to translate pixels back into ASCII text which can be read by synthesizers or Braille devices. Some of these companies were the entrepreneurs who had developed MS DOS access programs and wanted to keep pace with the changing computer environment. IBM deserves special mention because it was the first major computer company to devote significant resources to the development of access tools for blind computer users.

When most people think of GUI's, they think of Microsoft Windows. It is not surprising that the major efforts for access programmers were directed at making Windows usable by the blind. Even with this massive software development effort, blind experts say that the best of these programs provides 80 percent access to Windows 3.1.

It took several years for the blind community to get the attention of Microsoft. Finally, after much pressure had been applied, Microsoft developed a working group on accessibility. This group is currently trying to develop strategies for making Windows 95 usable by blind people.

Several questions arise. First, how important is access to Microsoft? It seems that it must be low on the priority list since the company released Windows 95 before the access question was answered. Someday, in the sweet by and by, Microsoft will make its products usable by blind people. In the meantime, any blind person working for a company which "upgrades" to Windows 95 should be prepared to hit the streets looking for a new job.

Stories are already circulating about blind people who have been hurt by the change to GUI systems. One blind systems analyst had been promoted to a supervisory position only to be demoted again when his employer changed to a graphics based system. A blind medical transcriptionist was told that he would be out of a job since he could no longer read the computer screen with a speech access program. Those involved in employment of the blind say that new computer related employment for the blind peaked three years ago and the trend is now slowly but inexorably downhill.

The second question arising from these developments is, what are we going to do about it? We cannot hide our heads in the silicon and yearn for the good old days of MS DOS. There will come a time, not very far in the future, when DOS will be as antiquated as the computer punchcard. We have no choice but to find a way to adapt to the graphics computer environment.

What do we do to shorten the lag time between the introduction of GUI's and the development of truly effective access methods? How do we make companies like Microsoft understand that access for blind people should be more than just a charitable afterthought?

We can begin by gathering data. Who has lost a job because of Windows or other GUI systems? Who has not been hired? The NFB:AE wants to gather this information to demonstrate the urgent need for companies to make access a high priority.

Has an employer who purchases Windows 95 discriminated against present or potential blind employees? No doubt, someone will eventually file a complaint with federal or provincial human rights agencies making this claim. If Windows 95 constitutes a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as some claim that it does, what will be the remedy? Will the government require Microsoft to make its products accessible? Will companies and government agencies be prohibited from buying it until it is? Is such strong action to protect information access rights for blind people just wishful thinking?

The speculation is interesting. It seems likely that software developers will take the needs of blind people more seriously if there is an economic incentive to do so. Our numbers are so small that we do not constitute a significant marketing target. However, when the costs of creating inaccessible technology are measured by the amount of public assistance which must be paid to blind people kept idle by it, the picture changes dramatically. Technology which is accessible to all is in the public's interest. It is up to us to gather the data to demonstrate that truth to officials who are largely unaware of the problem. We must work for a time when no computer software or hardware will be considered ready for release until blind people are able to make use of it, too.

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