Screen Reader Access Revolution

Over the last couple of years, several major changes occurred within the screen reader industry. The two that stand out involves the increase in low cost or free screen readers and Smart Phone manufactures integrating accessibility within the operating system like Apple’s Voice Over in iOS and Google’s Android accessibility features, like Talk Back,. Both of these events enabled many with sight or reading impairments to implement such technologies in their daily lives. This article look at the evolution and impact of the low cost and free screen readers for PC’s and laptops.

Many of you might be wondering, what is a screen reader? A screen reader is a piece of software installed on a computer that provides auditory and verbal feedback. For example, as I type this article, Window Eyes reports the character and word of what I just typed. Alternatively, as I navigate a webpage, things like heading navigation allows me to quickly preform a Google Search and find the results by hearing the titles of the returned webpages instead of having to listen to every piece of text on the webpage.

Ever since computers entered into the workplace and home, individuals have attempted to develop accessibility features, like screen readers and magnification. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s hardware performance acceleration and lower cost for personal computers enabled many visually impaired users to adopt these in their home and professional lives, since availability of assistive technologies took off. One aspect that never changed between this time and up until recently involved the cost of such accessibility tools.

Popular screen readers like JAWS, Window Eyes, and Guide or magnification programs like ZoomText costed anywhere between $700 to well over $1,000. This limited availability to those employed, receiving Vocational Rehabilitation services, some in schools or educational setting, and qualified recipients of the Veterans Administration’s Blind Rehab Services. However, these elected price points were a necessary evil to develop such programs for a small niche market. Today, we owe it to these early adopters of accessibility solutions the wide spread availability and features seen in the market.

The first company to challenge the price of screen readers was Serotek. They released System Access, believing accessibility must be affordable. Many applauded this effort. Serotek would not stop there, embracing the capabilities of cloud computing and accessibility everywhere in many of their later products.

With the release of Apple’s OS 10, the first fully integrated accessibility features appeared bundled within a mainstream operating system. The screen reader, Voice Over, serves as a full featured screen reader that rivals all of the Windows based programs. This enabled Apple to stand out as the first non-disability focused company to embrace universal accessibility as a business model. One might claim Microsoft’s Windows attempted to perform this task with Narrator and Magnifier, but these only serve in very limited capacity for setting up systems, then installing a third party accessibility variant.

The evolution of low or free accessibility tools continues with Non-Visual Access, (NVDA). NVDA surfaced in the 2000’s as a totally free and open sourced screen reader. The amazing part of NVDA is that it operates off donations, offers a full featured screen reader to users, and releases patches and updates faster than those more expensive programs. Many individuals, blind rehab programs, and organizations started offering NVDA as an option alongside JAWS, Window Eyes, and System Access.

In an example of goodwill and patriotism, Serotek took a step further when introducing the System Access Mobile Network (SAMNet) for Veterans program. Any visually impaired Veteran of the U.S. qualifies to receive a free lifetime subscription to SAMNet. The only requirement involves the completion of an application and certification by a Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) or other VA blind rehab specialist. This simple to learn interface enables a visually impaired individual to log on to any internet connected Windows computer and start using it. With a few keystrokes, a blinded Veteran will bring up a screen reader, access to email, online community forums, and access to hundreds of described videos ranging from popular movies to TV shows. This service is also now available on any iOS device through Serotek’s iBlink Radio iOS app.

The free access to screen readers does not stop here. Only a couple of weeks ago, GW Micro Systems announced their partnership with Microsoft Office. The agreement allows any individual with Microsoft Office 2010 or newer to download a free copy of Window Eyes. The only caveat is that the user would have to purchase additional support plans from GW Micro, but that is a small price compared to purchasing Window Eyes outright. This partnership hopes to promote an increase in awareness for software developers to include accessibility within their products. Secondary to this, those of us with sight impairments have a wonderful free screen reader at our disposal.

At this point, no one can speculate the ramifications of the dramatic shift in the availability of screen readers. Some individuals speculate that Microsoft would adopt and incorporate a full featured screen reader in their OS. Other individuals respond conservatively and believe very little will change in the home computer or laptop screen accessibility market, given the rise of accessible mobile devices in home and professional life. Either way, I am enjoying the freedom to select which screen reader to accomplish a certain objective.

Currently Apple’s Voice Over in OS 10.9, which is available within all new Apple computers, and ils serves as my primary screen reader of choice. Through Voice Over, I am able to accomplish all goals for daily business requirements, maintaining a website (www.BlindNotAlone.com), and social networking through Facebook and Twitter. However, I also use Talk Back on a Nexus 7, and  NVDA, SAMNet, and now Window Eyes on a windows based laptop. Each of these offers a different user experience, with varying strengths and weaknesses. The price points of all of these different assistive technologies drove me to learn and assimilate each into my daily life.