New year’s resolution for 2008: Every blind person with an interest in technology should vow never to reiterate these lies.

PDFs are inaccessible. I can’t use PDFs.

This is, in fact, the official policy of Australia, at least according to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. (What that means is it is the fervent, irrational, readily-disproved belief of Bruce Maguire; the HREOC took his dictation.)

It’s true that, in the past, PDFs were inaccessible because the file format had no structural features and screen readers (inter alia) could not read PDFs. At some level, none of that is true anymore. We don’t have a finished PDF accessibility spec, but text-and-graphics PDFs, including multicolumn and tabular documents, can be and are accessible. (“I’ve never received a PDF I could read” is a different complaint from “I can’t read any PDFs.”)

If you’re using an old screen reader, you have to upgrade. We invented an entire new technology for you. Of course you have to improve your technology to work with what didn’t exist before. Of course that’s unfair if you’re poor. But, most of the time, you made a conscious choice to work on a platform that forces you to pay money for accessibility.

Word and RTF are accessible.

The Microsoft Word file format is a secret on a par with the recipe for Coca-Cola. You can hack and reverse-engineer your way around it, but what you get is Pepsi, not real Coke. The file format isn’t published. Microsoft owns it; that means they own your data. RTF is only partially published.

So yes, because you made a conscious choice to use a platform where “document” was redefined to mean “Microsoft Word document,” you might find it more convenient to receive an MS Word file. Your screen reader would have been very heavily customized, behind the scenes and at immense effort, just so it barely functions with Word documents. You can call that accessible if you want. You’d be wrong, though; all you really mean is “convenient for me,” which isn’t the same thing.

“Apple” is inaccessible.

That’s typically how the complaint is expressed: “Blind people can’t use Apple.” If you’re too stupid to distinguish a product from a company, please take your white cane and go somewhere else.

Mac OS 8 and 9 were half-assedly accessible using the ancient screen reader known as OutSpoken. OS X – it’s two words, and the second word is pronounced “ten” – was almost completely inaccessible to the blind user until 10.4, when suddenly you got a full screen reader for free. Yes, free.

“Apple” isn’t as good as Jaws.

And here, “Apple” means VoiceOver, the built-in screen reader. Of course it isn’t as good as today’s version of Jaws (8 or 9). Does anyone even remember Version 1.0 of Jaws? Is it installed on anyone’s computer? Are there any computers still in use that can run it? No, right? Because that’s the standard of comparison: VoiceOver under OS X 10.4 was a V1.0 product. By the same token, VoiceOver under OS X 10.5 is a V2.0 product and is much improved. (Try this under Jaws: Reboot your computer off DVD to upgrade your operating system. Plug in a Braille display. Does it work immediately with no configuration at all? It does for us.)

Also, behind the scenes (and without much documentation), VoiceOver was continuously improved with each release of a system update or new software (like iTunes).

Lots and lots of blind people use nothing but Macs all day, and many more use both Mac and Windows. You may not know these people, but we didn’t ask you that. (Why not listen to the podcast put out by two VoiceOver users?)

Coming up: Cherished lies of the deaf.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.11.19 18:33. 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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None. I quit.

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