Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Frustrations with NVDA-support

Because NVDA is free software, we do not have the resources to provide free, direct technical support to users. Therefore, the NVDA-support email list was set up as "a place where users of the NVDA screen reader are able to ask questions about how to use NVDA".

A common complaint about mailing lists like this is that they produce a lot of messages. Some users cannot (or do not wish to) handle this high email traffic and therefore end up unsubscribing from the list fairly quickly, thus limiting its usefulness. Instead, users contact us directly or are driven away from the project. When directed to the tracker and email lists, one user who contacted me directly complained about having to "sign up to a thousand lists".

To combat this, we decided to selectively moderate the list, as full moderation is too time consuming. Users who broke (or bordered on breaking) list rules or otherwise had the potential to generate a lot of unnecessary traffic were moderated. Any post from those users that was irrelevant, unnecessary or might start such a thread was rejected.

Unfortunately, several users have been unhappy with or even outright offended by this. Today in particular, I rejected a post from a user (previously moderated for an off-topic post) which, while intended to be helpful, provided an incorrect (or at least very indirect) answer which I believed would cause more questions than it answered. No accusation was made, but this user took this very personally and made it clear that he would no longer support the project in any way.

Another common gripe is that users are often told to read the documentation when they ask questions. If it seems that a user hasn't even tried to read the documentation before asking a question, I do not think this is unwarranted. If they've at least tried and don't understand, this is a different matter entirely. If they don't wish to make the effort to at least try to understand the documentation, they should not expect free support.

It seems I can't win. I tried to do what I thought best for the NVDA community in limiting the traffic on the list so more users would be encouraged to use it. As a result, I'm accused of being unfair, draconian and ungrateful. Therefore, I've disabled all moderation on the list and I am withdrawing from the list myself for a while. I am done with support for now.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Inexcusable Inaccessibility: APC Goalball Coverage

Australia are currently hosting the IBSA Africa Oceania Goalball Regional Championships, where both men's and women's teams are playing to qualify for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Go Australia! :) They've provided a live internet stream with commentary, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, the Flash video player they're using is completely inaccessible to screen reader users. (Technically, it uses windowless Flash, which is not accessible.) Worse, the page doesn't even play the video automatically when it opens, which means you have no choice but to use the video player controls. Allow me to emphasise the absolute, inexcusable absurdity of this situation: they are broadcasting a sport for the blind, but the broadcast is inaccessible to blind people.

Digging through their code, it's not too hard to work around this. I was able to come up with a link which enables auto-play, so at least it begins playing automatically, avoiding the need to use the video player controls. However, the average user would not have been able to do this themselves.

Ideally, everything should be accessible to all users. Sometimes, for whatever reasons (valid or not), this isn't possible. When it isn't, at least consider your target audience. If, for example, a large number of them are probably going to be blind, it might just make sense to implement and test accessibility for screen reader users. The APC are using an external service to provide the stream. Regardless, they should have tested and resolved the problem somehow or, at the very least, openly provided a work around such as the one I gave above.

It's worth noting that Adobe clearly document that windowless (transparent or opaque) Flash is inaccessible.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Making PennyTel Accessible with Greasemonkey

PennyTel is an incredibly cheap VoIP provider serving Australia (among other countries) which I have been using for several years. For the most part, I am fairly happy with them, especially the price. Unfortunately, their customer portal has many accessibility problems, and despite a polite request from me quite some time ago, nothing has been done to rectify this.

The biggest issue is that there are many buttons on the site which are presented using clickable graphics, but they have been marked with @alt="", indicating that the graphics are for visual presentation/layout only and suggesting to screen readers that they shouldn't be presented to the user. Obviously, this is very wrong, since these graphics are buttons which the user might wish to activate. It's bad enough that no text alternative is provided, but specifying empty text is extremely incorrect. With the current version of NVDA, this issue makes the portal practically unusable.

It recently occurred to me that it might be possible to hack around this with Greasemonkey. In short, Greasemonkey is a Firefox add-on which allows you to "customize the way a web page displays or behaves, by using small bits of JavaScript".

This turned out to be a great success. I now have a Greasemonkey script that not only gives friendly labels to many graphic buttons, but also injects ARIA to transform these graphics into buttons. In addition, there are parts of the portal which use graphics to indicate which option has been selected and the script turns these into radio buttons using ARIA. There is a navigation bar where the items are only clickable text, which the script changes into links for quicker navigation using ARIA. Finally, @alt="" is removed from all other clickable graphics which the script doesn't yet know about, which at least allows screen readers to present the graphic using their own algorithms to determine a label. Once the script is installed, this all happens transparently without any special action.

This took me a few hours, though this was mostly because I had never used Greasemonkey and only had a very basic knowledge of JavaScript before. Aside from the fact that PennyTel is now quite usable for me, this is also an exciting demonstration of how accessibility improvements for a site can be "scripted" within the browser like this, independent of any particular screen reader.

If you happen to have a PennyTel account and would find this useful yourself, you can grab the script. I'm sure there are more things I can improve, but this is sufficient to make the site quite usable.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Morning Limerick

There once was a guy named James Teh
Who disliked the start of the day.
He hated awaking,
Was bored by fast-breaking
And wished it would all go away.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Responsibility for Windows Application Accessibility

When an assistive technology (AT) user discovers an application that is inaccessible in some way, they will generally hold one of two parties responsible: the AT developer or the application developer.

In the Apple world, the application developer is generally responsible for ensuring accessibility. Users don't tend to complain to Apple when an application is inaccessible; they complain to the application developer. More often than not, this is correct. An accessibility framework has been provided to facilitate application accessibility and Apple's assistive technologies utilise this framework, so it's up to the application to fulfil its part of the bargain.

In contrast, in the Windows world, the AT developer is generally held responsible. In the past, before there were standard, fully functional accessibility frameworks, I guess this was fair to some extent because application developers had no way of making their applications accessible out-of-the-box. As a result, AT developers worked around these problems themselves through application specific scripting and hacks. However, Windows has had standard rich accessibility frameworks such as IAccessible2 and UI Automation for several years now. Therefore, this is no longer an acceptable justification. Despite this, the general expectation still seems to be that AT developers are primarily responsible. For example, we constantly receive bug reports stating that a certain application does not work with NVDA.

Some might argue another reason for this situation is that application developers have previously been unable to test the accessibility of their applications because of the high cost of commercial ATs. With the availability of free ATs such as NVDA for several years now, this too is no longer an acceptable excuse.

So why is this still the case in the Windows world? If it's simply a ghost from the past, we need to move on. Maybe it's due to a desire for competitive advantage among AT vendors, but the mission of improving accessibility and serving users as well as possible should be more important. If it's resultant to poor or incomplete support for standard accessibility frameworks, ATs need to resolve this. Inadequate or missing support for accessibility in GUI toolkits is probably part of the problem. We need to work to fix this. Perhaps it's because of a lack of documentation and common knowledge. In that case, the accessibility/AT industry needs to work to rectify this. Maybe there just needs to be more advocacy about application accessibility. Are there other reasons? I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Whatever the reasons, I believe it's important that this changes. Proprietary solutions implemented for individual ATs are often suboptimal. Even if this wasn't the case, implementing such solutions in multiple ATs seems redundant and wasteful. Finally, the more applications that are accessible using standard mechanisms, the more users will benefit.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My quest for a New Mobile Phone

Disclaimer: This is primarily based on my own personal experience. Also, this all happened last year, so some of the finer details are a bit vague now.

Early last year, my trusty 6 year old Nokia 6600 was finally starting to die and I decided it was past time to move on. (Amusingly, that phone even survived being accidentally dunked in a glass of wine.) My aim was to satisfy all of my portable technology needs with one device, including phone, email, web browser, audio player (standard 3.5 mm audio socket essential), synchronisable calendar, synchronisable contact manager, note taker, ebook reader and portable file storage. And so the quest began.

Making the (First) Choice

My ideal mobile platform was Android. Aside from satisfying all of my needs, it is an open, modern platform. Unfortunately, although I seriously entertained the idea, a great deal of research and playing with the Android emulator led me to realise that Android's accessibility was at an unacceptably poor state for me.

I considered the iPhone. I've written about the iPhone's out-of-the-box accessibility to blind people before and have played with an iPhone several times since. Although I was pretty impressed, especially by the fact that VoiceOver comes out-of-the-box, there were two major problems with the iPhone for me. First, I dislike the closed nature of the iPhone environment, commonly known as the "walled garden" or "do things Apple's way or not at all". Aside from the principle (you all know I'm a big advocate for openness), I would be unable to play ogg vorbis (my audio format of choice) in iPod, I would have to transfer music and files with iTunes (which I detest), I couldn't use it as a portable file storage device, and I would be limited to apps that Apple permitted (unless I wanted to jailbreak). Second, I wanted a device with a physical keyboard. In the end, I decided against the iPhone.

I briefly considered another Symbian Series 60 phone. However, based on past experience (both mine and others'), I didn't think I would be able to play audio and use the screen reader simultaneously, which immediately disqualified it for me, although I've since been informed that is no longer true on some newer phones. I also feel it is a dying platform. There are probably some other reasons i discounted it, but i can't remember them now. If nothing else, I wasn't entirely happy with it and wanted a change.

Finally, I settled on Windows Mobile, specifically the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, with Mobile Speak. I guess Windows Mobile is a dying platform too, but at the time, I felt it was perhaps less so and provided more functionality for me. While the operating system itself isn't open, you can develop and install apps as you please without being restricted to a single app store. There are several ogg vorbis players for Windows Mobile. I also had the option of buying Mobile Geo for navigation if I wanted to later. I was warned by someone who played with an older phone that Mobile Speak on Windows Mobile was fairly unresponsive, but unable to test this myself, I hoped that it might be better with a less resource intensive voice such as Fonix and/or a newer phone or that I'd get used to it.

Frustration, Pain and Misery

A bit less than $800 later, I got my new phone and Mobile Speak in June. I expected and accepted that it would take me some time to get used to it. I loved finally being able to access the internet from my phone and play audio through proper stereo headphones. However, despite this, the next few months were just downright painful and frequently induced rage bordering on violence. I often had the urge to throw my new phone across the room several times a day.

Primarily, this was due to Mobile Speak. I found it to be hideously unresponsive, unstable, unreliable, inconsistent and otherwise buggy as all hell.
  • The unresponsiveness proved to be unacceptable for me, often taking around half a second to respond to input and events, even using Fonix. Aside from the general inefficiency this caused, this made reading text incredibly tedious, and despite the physical keyboard, typing was painful due to the slow response to backspace and cursor keys.
  • Mobile Speak crashed or froze far too often and there was no way to resurrect it without restarting the phone.
  • In Internet Explorer, working with form controls was extremely inconsistent and unreliable, especially multi-line editable text fields. Quick navigation (moving by heading, etc.) was very slow and failed to work altogether in many cases. On my phone, Google services (including Google Search, even the mobile version, of all things!) refused to render at all.
  • I encountered problems when reading email as well. Sometimes, Mobile Speak wouldn't render emails. Others, it wouldn't let me navigate to the headers of the email, which is essential if you want to download the rest of a message that hasn't been fully downloaded.
  • Reading text in Word Mobile was even slower than everywhere else, which made reading ebooks infeasible.
  • Braille display scrolling is either broken or unintuitive. On my 40 cell display, Mobile Speak only seemed to scroll half the display and I couldn't find a way to change this.
  • Definitely quite a few other bugs I can't remember all of the details about...
It's worth noting that I'm not saying that this is all entirely Mobile Speak's fault. I suspect Windows Mobile and other applications may play a part in this dodginess.

I had two other major gripes with Mobile Speak.
  • Despite years of experience with screen readers, I found the Mobile Speak commands, especially the touch interface, to be tedious and difficult to learn. The touch interface is inherently slow to use because you need to wait after certain taps to avoid them being construed as double or triple taps.
  • Mobile Speak's phone number licensing model was a major annoyance for me when I went overseas for a few days. Mobile Speak allows you to use it with a SIM card with a different number for 12 hours, but you have to reinsert the original SIM card after 12 hours if you want Mobile Speak to continue functioning as a licensed copy. Also, I seem to recall that this also applied if the phone was in airplane mode.

There were other things that irritated me about my phone and its applications.
  • I found Windows Mobile in general to be very sluggish. Even something as fundamental to a phone as dialling on the phone keypad or adjusting the volume was incredibly laggy, sometimes taking several seconds to respond to key presses.
  • Far too many apps, including Google Maps and both of the free ogg vorbis players I tried, had significant accessibility problems.
  • Windows Media doesn't have support for bookmarking, which made reading audio books infeasible. There was a paid app that provided this and other functionality i wanted, but i wasn't willing to pay for it in case I discovered it too had major accessibility problems.
  • Windows Mobile doesn't have enough levels on its volume control.
  • If the phone is switched to silent, all audio is silenced, including Mobile Speak.
  • Internet Explorer doesn't support tabbed browsing!
  • Windows Mobile only supports one Exchange Active Sync account, which meant I couldn't maintain separate personal and work calendars.
  • More...

The Snapping Point

In the end, after less than 6 months, I just couldn't take it any more. I tried to learn to live with it for at least a couple of years, as I'd already spent so much money on it, but it was truly unbearable. It's worth noting that a close friend of mine had a very similar experience with Windows Mobile and also gave up in equivalent disgust around the same time. It particularly angers me that I paid $315 for a piece of software as buggy as Mobile Speak. I started playing with Jen's iPhone a bit more, and finally, I gave in and got my own.

The iPhone: Peace at Last

For reasons I mentioned above, I felt like I was going to the dark side when I made the decision to switch to the iPhone. Among other things, it's a bit hypocritical of me, given my belief in and advocacy for openness. Nevertheless, I have not looked back once since I got it. It has truly changed my life.

The in-built accessibility of the iPhone is amazing. I strongly believe that accessibility should not incur an extra cost for the user and Apple have done just that. VoiceOver is very responsive. Usage is fairly intuitive. All of the in-built apps and the majority of third party apps are accessible. Once you get used to it and start to remember where things are on the screen, navigating with the touch screen becomes incredibly efficient. The support for braille displays is excellent; I can see this being very useful next time I need to give a presentation. The triple-click home feature means that I can even toggle VoiceOver on Jen's phone when needed, which has been really useful for us when she is driving and needs me to read directions.

I still hate iTunes, but thankfully, I rarely have to use it. I manage music and other audio on my phone using the iPod manager component for my audio player, foobar2000, which is excellent and even transcodes files in unsupported formats on the fly. The iPod app is great, supporting gapless playback for music and automatic bookmarks for audio books and podcasts.

Other highlights:
  • Very nice email and web browsing experience.
  • Push notifications for mail, Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging.
  • Multiple calendars.
  • Skype on my phone, which is far nicer than being tied to my computer when on a Skype call.
  • Voice control, which works well most of the time.
  • Smooth reading of ebooks using iBooks.

Resultant to all of this, I find I spend far less time in front of my computer outside of work hours. Also, when I'm away from home, even on holiday for a week, I often just take my phone. Previously, I had to take my notebook almost everywhere.

Like all things, the iPhone isn't perfect. I still dislike the walled garden, and I have to live with transcoded audio and can't use my iPhone as a USB storage device because of it. I am definitely slower at typing on the iPhone than I was on the numeric keypad on my old Nokia 6600, although perhaps surprisingly, I'm probably faster on the iPhone than I was on the Xperia X1. There are definitely bugs, some of which I encounter on a daily basis and are very annoying.

Even so, I love the iPhone. I'm willing to make some sacrifices, and I can live with bugs that are at least consistent and easy enough to work around. On the rare occasions that VoiceOver crashes, I can easily restart it with a triple click of the Home button. I wish I'd gone for the iPhone in the first place and not wasted so much money on the Windows Mobile solution, but ah well, live and learn.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Brilliant Email

The following email sent to NV Access administration yesterday is an amazing mastery of politeness, eloquence, intellect and linguistic ability. I've reproduced it verbatim below, except for the obfuscation of some words for reasons that will become clear as you read. Enjoy!
From: Dave. I lost my cookie at the disco. <computerguy125@****>
To: admin@****
Date: Sun, 13 Feb 2011 23:40:16 -0500


Email services provided by the System Access Mobile Network.  Visit www.serotek.com to learn more about accessibility anywhere.