LOS ANGELES, March 20, 2002 — As manufacturers unveil the newest array of Microsoft Windows XP-compatible assistive technologies at an international conference in Los Angeles this week, those most interested are the people with disabilities who will use these innovations to enhance the ways in which they live, work and learn.
ATI’s new Mercury device, made possible by Windows XP accessibility technology, helps disabled people to speak.
That includes people like “Sally,” an 8-year-old in Boston from whom cerebral palsy had stolen the ability to speak. A new device from Assistive Technology Inc. (ATI), powered by Windows XP, has literally changed the youngster’s life.
A rapidly growing number of assistive-technology products — which help users with sensory, mobility and cognitive disabilities — are compatible with Windows XP. The newest Microsoft operating system is also the most accessible the company has ever released. It provides a dynamic platform with built-in accessibility features designed to help developers quickly create new assistive technologies.
“In the past, people with disabilities often had to wait up to 18 months for assistive technologies that could take advantage of improvements in new operating systems or applications,” says Ellen Mosner, public affairs manager in Microsoft’s Accessible Technology Group. “For Windows XP, Microsoft worked closely with many vendors to make sure that from day one there would be an expanding lineup of such products available. At Microsoft, we strive to make our products more accessible with each new version, and we provide tools that can help other technology companies make their products more accessible.”
At this week’s 17th annual international conference on assistive technology sponsored by the Center on Disabilities at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), ATI and Macromedia Inc. are among the companies demonstrating products that run on Windows XP and make computers and Web sites more accessible . Other companies announcing new technology products at the conference include Madentec Limited’ Kurzweil Educational Systems, Inc.; ScanSoft, Inc.; IntelliTools; ZYGO Industries, Inc.; and Words+, Inc. These latest Windows XP-compatible assistive technologies join several other such products available when Microsoft launched its new operating system in October.
ATI Delivers Innovative Multi-Purpose Device
At a school in Boston, an 8-year-old girl with cerebral palsy uses a joystick to maneuver a power wheelchair around her classroom with the precision and confidence of a professional race car driver. The wheelchair is a device well adapted to her unique needs, but her inability to walk is not her only disability.
Sally (her name has been changed to protect her privacy) is also unable to speak. She had been using a simple communication device that provided a few basic speech tools — a synthesized voice and some generic icons with pre-programmed phrases — but the device was cumbersome and hard to use. Her disability made it difficult for her to use her fingers or even a head pointer effectively to manipulate the touch screen that allowed her to “speak” with her family, teachers and friends, and she was often frustrated by the time and effort it took to make herself understood.
Now, thanks to a new device from ATI called the Mercury, Sally’s world suddenly has expanded and she is able to communicate her thoughts quickly and clearly.
Mercury, a fully functional computer in a table form equipped with a touch screen and running on Microsoft Windows XP, is fully portable and attaches easily to Sally’s wheelchair so she can take it with her wherever she goes. The machine connects via cable to the joystick she already uses with finesse to control her wheelchair, enabling her to easily move the cursor around the screen.
Sally has her choice of various synthesized voices and the option of using digital photos of her family, friends, home and classroom as on-screen icons, which allows her parents and teachers to help her personalize her experience and customize her communication. For example, when Sally clicks on a photo of herself, the synthesized voice she has chosen might say, “Hello, my name is Sally, do you want to play a computer game, watch television or surf the Web with me?” and she can directly control these activities from her Mercury.
“She can’t speak verbally, but using our tools she now has a loud, clear, personalized voice,” says Jim Lewis, president and CEO of ATI. “Because Mercury is a computer and not just a communication device, she also has educational software loaded on her machine that allows her to work on specific skills — and when it’s time for recess she can easily interact with other children. When she wants to make a phone call, turn on the television, play computer games or get onto the Internet, she simply activates those features. With Mercury, we have a comprehensive solution built on a stable, mainstream operating system — Windows XP — that gives users with disabilities everything they need in one device.”
Lewis says Windows XP was the ideal operating system for the Mercury because it allowed ATI to provide its users with a responsive, reliable and intuitive experience that is also cool and contemporary. In designing and developing the Mercury, ATI took advantage of the faster boot-up time and better interrupt-handling in Windows XP, as well as features such as its built-in text-to-speech utility, on-screen keyboard and customizable Start Menu options.
Dr. Howard Shane, director of the Communications Enhancement Center at Children’s Hospital in Boston, was a beta tester for ATI, and also participated in focus groups about the Mercury. Shane says the Mercury allows a person with virtually any physical disability to not only centralize functions performed by other assistive technologies in a single device, but also to gain full access to the Internet, work productivity tools, education and entertainment programs, and much more.
“Mercury is an assistive device wrapped around a powerful operating system that allows people to access and use a computer in an unrestricted manner while providing a platform where people with different types of disabilities can perform a wide range of functions,” Shane says. “Most assistive technologies are dedicated devices that perform only one or two tasks, so many users need several devices to do everything they need to do in the course of a day. A single, portable device that helps people accomplish more of the tasks that are essential for contemporary life is a great innovation.”
Macromedia Makes Web Sites More Accessible in a “Flash”
Macromedia recently announced that it has built accessibility support into both its Macromedia Flash MX development software and Macromedia Flash Player 6 — both fully compatible with Windows XP. The player includes support for Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), which enables people with disabilities to interact with Macromedia Flash content and applications using accessibility aids such as screen readers — devices that use synthesized speech to read aloud text messages that describe what a blind or low-vision user is unable to see on a computer screen or Web site. Macromedia Flash MX simplifies the creation of accessible Web content by enabling developers and Web site managers to add descriptive text to rich Internet content and applications that use Flash technology.
“Using Microsoft Active Accessibility and Microsoft Windows was the best way for us to deliver our solution to the broadest number of people in the least amount of time,” says Bob Regan, product manager for accessibility at Macromedia. “This solution is entirely dependent on MSAA.”
Regan gave the example of a Flash movie on a Web site that shows planets orbiting the sun and how it might “look” to a blind user with a screen reader.
“The key to making that Flash image really accessible is not to simply label the planets ‘Earth, Mars and Venus,’ but to provide a text equivalent for the visual image that describes what a sighted user would see, including the context and purpose of the image,” Regan says. “With Flash MX, we have a new set of tools to solve a very old problem, and that is really exciting, because we have solved a problem for people who really need these problems solved.
Microsoft’s Mosner says Macromedia’s work to make Flash technology accessible is important not only to people with disabilities, but also to those who design, develop and manage Web sites.
“Web developers don’t have to choose between being accessible and being cool,” Mosner says. “They can use the same excellent tool they’ve always used, but now they can be assured that it will be accessible to everyone who visits their Web site.”
Regan agrees. “Previously, Web developers who wanted to use Flash often designed separate versions of their site, an accessible version and a Flash version. That’s a really cumbersome way to develop. The improvements in Flash MX allow Web developers to write one accessible version of the content.”
Regan says a lot of Web content is delivered using Flash technology in places where accessibility is a high priority, including e-learning, government and university environments. He says presenting information in several different ways is essential in using the Web to help people learn.
“I’m a former third-grade teacher, and when we teach kids it’s almost a truism that we like to present things in multiple formats. We like to have kids read things, see things, hear things, and if possible we like to have them interact with things, because that helps them learn and understand better,” Regan says. “Flash allows us to do that.”
“Thats the essence of accessibility,” Mosner says, “to provide simultaneous alternatives that deliver the highest possible quality of user experience, and not to convey information through only one medium. We want to make sure that all people get the best user experience they can get, regardless of their abilities.”
Regan sees the biggest challenge to full Web accessibility is getting good descriptions — also called text equivalents — for content some users can’t see, to ensure that everyone has a good user experience. Text equivalents are created by individual Web designers, so their quality varies dramatically from site to site.
“The problems that limit Web accessibility are often that last bit that takes something from being nearly accessible to truly usable within an assistive technology environment — and that’s an important distinction,” he says. “We can make it possible for people to provide text equivalents for Flash content, but then it’s up to our designers to take advantage of it in a way that reflects the environment their users are working in. That’s the last hurdle, and to support that we do a lot of training for our customers.”
But making Flash technology accessible isn’t only about giving people with disabilities access to some of the cool bells and whistles they’ve been missing, according to Regan. Flash MX is allowing developers to improve navigation and other Web functionality for people with disabilities, and groups such as Lighthouse for the Blind are already using the new tools to develop computer games for blind and low-vision users.
“We’ve seen content that has been created in Flash, even something as unremarkable as a navigation bar that reads categories and subcategories as they’re actually written, which just isn’t possible in HTML,” Regan says. “And so we’re able to provide much more usable environments for people working with assistive technology.”
Accessibility Momentum Accelerates
Mosner says Macromedia’s decision to make Flash technology accessible to people with disabilities sets an important example for the entire technology industry. “When a major industry player like Macromedia makes it easy for developers to create accessible Web sites with a commonly used design product like Flash, that’s a major win for everybody — for the industry and for people with disabilities — because it helps all of us meet our goal of making computers and technology accessible to all people.
“Like Microsoft, Macromedia provides tools for many other companies so we believe the release of this one tool could really move the needle on Web accessibility. Designing accessible Web sites and accessible technology is good design and good business,” she adds.
Regan says guidelines from the section of U.S. law known as Section 508 are helping to drive that change, because they state that federal-government Web sites are required by law to make all content and programs offered on their Internet and intranet sites accessible to people with disabilities. He says nations throughout Europe, plus some in Asia and South America, have similar laws or policies, as do a growing number of states and universities.
“Accessibility is growing in momentum, and what we’re seeing now is only the beginning,” Regan says. “Industry is going to be pushed to do this, because the market is going to demand it. If there’s one place where competition is really going to yield results, it’s going to be in helping people, and I’d really like to see all of us compete to see who can do the best job of making products accessible for people with disabilities. At Macromedia, we’re committed to building more accessibility into our products, and Microsoft’s leadership and support is making it easier for us to achieve that goal.”