The Accessibility Issue

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For an industry that makes a business out of being advanced, IT historically has lagged in the area of accessibility.

Since the beginning, IT companies set out to develop operating systems and software programs that made work and life easier, faster and more accurate, but ironically, they often left out the millions of people worldwide with special needs who could really benefit from such technology.

For example, features such as audio clips embedded in software and Web pages often exclude members of the deaf or hard of hearing community, while blind and visually impaired computer users miss out on graphics and videos.

In 2004, the U.K.’s Disability Rights Commission (now part of the Equality and Human Rights Commission) surveyed 1,000 sites and found only six to be AA compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 put out by the World Wide Web Consortium, according to London-based publication The Register.

But now, it seems IT is finally catching up with the rest of the world. In May, Microsoft announced the availability of a new plug-in for Microsoft Word 2007, 2003 and XP that allows users to save Office Open XML documents in the Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY) XML format, which improves accessibility for the blind and visually impaired.

DAISY XML was developed based on a standard created in 1998 by the nonprofit DAISY Consortium, which serves the visually impaired community.

Many visually impaired computer users currently turn to screen readers and auditory tools to interpret Web pages, Word documents and Adobe PDF files. Such programs rely on the metadata embedded in files that relay document structure, graphics and tone.

But the experience is less than enjoyable, to say the least. According to a May article on Computerworld.com, the free, built-in auditory tools such as Windows XP’s Narrator often are too rudimentary to convey the information properly, and vendor text-to-speech programs can run up to $5,000. Plus, improper coding in the metadata can render whole sections — or even the whole document — useless.

What makes DAISY XML revolutionary is that it was built from the start with the visually impaired in mind. It was created to support proper metadata coding in the first place, and it can help users transition not only from text to audio, but from text to large print and even to Braille.

According to the Microsoft Web site, the new “Save as DAISY XML” tool presents an opportunity for “organizations and independent software vendors to consider ways in which the technology may be employed to meet the needs of those not yet served by text-only or audio-only formats.”
 
It also might impact industries such as insurance, health care and others that publish training manuals, as content could be more accessible to customers and employees, the site said.

The American Foundation for the Blind estimates 10 million people in the U.S. are blind or visually impaired — and only about 15 percent use computers. Without even factoring in the tens of millions of people worldwide with reading or developmental disabilities, the widespread availability of DAISY could have a major impact not only on this community but on computer use in general.

Other plug-ins for Microsoft Office products — such as PowerPoint — are said to be in the works.

Fundamentally, the DAISY plug-in symbolizes a small shift in the IT industry from a focus on rapid development to one on usability and accessibility. Perhaps now that computer and Internet use are reaching high-penetration levels, the industry has the foresight to take a step back and work on improving quality and delivery.

That’s not to say there’s been a mass movement, though. No other major software companies have released similar plug-ins in recent months. But Microsoft’s effort establishes precedence, and ultimately, it highlights the broader applications and implications of IT in our lives today. We’ll see whether the rest of the industry takes heed.

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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