Possibly mine. Possibly. I may not have been the first person to propose it, but I was a person who did. (See the VoiceOver video.)

I sent the following E-mail to an Apple contact on 2003.07.04 (excerpted, HTMLified):

Screen readers & OS X

Simply put, there aren’t any screen readers for OS X, and the current rate there never will be. That means OS X is highly inaccessible to blind and visually-impaired users, who have many choices on Windows. Individuals, schools, corporations, and especially the U.S. government can be predicted to begin to favour Windows machines over Macs because of their need to provide an accessible computing environment, particularly across large numbers of users.

Screen-reader basics

“Screen reader” is a term for a category of software, like “word processor” or “spreadsheet.” Screen readers are programs that interpret and read out loud in voice the text, menus, and other visual components of an operating system and application software. People with low vision, usually people with next to no usable vision, are the main users of screen readers.

These programs make the entire computer accessible to blind people. They do not simply read text aloud from left to right, top to bottom; the user has considerable control over the focus of the speech, and can choose, for example, to read items in the Dock, menus, the text in a floating palette, a cell in a spreadsheet, or an entire dialogue box. You can spell words and enunciate numbers. When browsing the Web, you can skip navigation links and entire table cells, navigate through table cells and frames, fill in forms, and read text equivalents for graphics, among many other functions.

Windows vs. Macintosh

Mac OS used to have a screen reader, OutSpoken for Macintosh by Alva Access Group. It was barely passable for application software and couldn’t handle Web sites in any usable fashion. Worse, it worked in Mac OS 9 only and will not be updated for OS X.

Windows users have a range of products to choose from. The Microsoft of screen reading is Freedom Scientific, makers of Jaws for Windows. (If you think Quark is hard to deal with, wait till you talk to them.) Window-Eyes by GW Micro is the main competitor.

Accessibility requirements

Employers, schools, and especially governments are required to accommodate people with disabilities. That includes offering adaptive technology for people with disabilities where necessary. Having a screen reader in white-collar jobs is the difference between working and not working for many blind people, a group that already is significantly underemployed. Currently, the only way to accommodate a blind person on the job involves using Windows. (People with less-severe visual impairments may possibly, in some cases, be able to get by with OS X’s built-in screen magnification.)

With no screen reader on Mac OS X, Apple loses each and every one of those sales. Further, nobody has managed to get a Windows screen reader to run under VirtualPC, which in any event defeats the purpose of buying a Mac.

How to leapfrog the market

While blind Windows users are far better off when it comes to accessibility, there’s a significant weakness that Apple could exploit. Jaws for Windows costs $895 to $1,[2]95. It’s also a notoriously finicky program that crashes regularly, forces users to learn over a hundred keystroke combinations, and is updated infrequently.

While there may be screen readers on Windows, they essentially tell blind people “We’re going to charge you an extra thousand dollars for being blind, and stick you with hard-to-use, crash-prone software. Welcome to equality.”

It is unrealistic to think that any third-party developer will volunteer to write a screen reader for OS X. Apple should do so itself. The marketing angle is irresistible: “Unlike some people, we don’t believe in charging extra because you’re blind.”

Apple’s performance in the accessibility field has been poor in recent years. The action is happening on Windows, and notwithstanding the Macintosh advantages of built-in speech, better fonts, and an easier-to-use system, on the topic of accessibility Apple has lagged behind.

So instead of just catching up, leapfrog everybody else. Ship a screen reader with at least the capabilities of Jaws that is easier to use – and ship it as a standard part of the operating system. If OS X can include tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Asian-language fonts that only some users ever need, the same can be done for this crucial form of adaptive technology.

The E-mail was later passed around; I talked on the phone with a senior manager; and the VoiceOver project (né Spoken Interface) was approved.

I have no way of knowing if a movement within Apple predated my suggestion, but I know I made the suggestion when I did.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2005.05.01 15:57. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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