Voicing The Visual

Apple’s graphically oriented new screen reader may be the future of accessible interface design.

When he was an 18-year-old college dropout, future Apple CEO Steve Jobs signed up for a calligraphy class. In a speech last year, he said he fell in love with typography though convinced that learning about serif versus sans-serif typefaces and the variation of space between letter combinations could have no practical application. A decade later it turned out to be useful: the Macintosh became the first computer with multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts—an innovation that not only made it a compulsory tool for designers but also raised the possibility that a computer interface could be graphics based and beautiful. Beginning with the Mac’s graphical user interface (GUI)—the first widely used example, later adopted by Microsoft Windows and Web browsers—how the screen looked mattered. It has been the primary innovation of personal computing. But what does that mean for people who can’t see it?

With the help of screen-readers—programs that speak the text on the monitor—and magnifying and contrast-enhancing features, the approximately 260,000 blind and 10 million vision-impaired people in the United States have a way to access the Internet, which has become critical in obtaining goods and services without having to navigate the physical world. Indeed a 2000 Harris Poll found that 48 percent of adults with disabilities said the Internet significantly improved the quality of their lives, compared with 27 percent of adults without disabilities—numbers that have surely increased in the last five years. “Without a doubt the Web has been a tremendous opening for people with disabilities in every sense,” says Jim Tobias, principal of New Jersey-based accessibility consultants, Inclusive Technologies. “Just look at the access to text. Before if you didn’t have a Braille version of something—which was always a year late—or someone nice enough to record something by your favorite author, you were out of luck—and you were way behind. Now you have so many options.”

This spring—21 years after the Mac’s debut—Apple presented VoiceOver, an integrated screen reader that promises to shift expectations for how nonsighted users interact with a computer. Amid the hubbub surrounding the release of Tiger, the current version of Mac’s operating system, few in the press noted its existence—but in the accessibility world it was huge. While the leading Windows screen-reading programs, such as JAWS, cost about $900, Apple began building a full-fledged reader into the operating system. VoiceOver refuses to abandon the graphical interface. Instead of stripping the text from its spatial situation, the program suggests how it looks on the screen by acknowledging the arrangement of windows and frames, and the difference between menus and content.

VoiceOver is Cheryl Homiak’s “first full-fledged experience with GUI”—from which sighted people have been reaping advantages for more than 20 years—“as the primary OS on a machine.” The Madison, Wisconsin, resident has been fully blind since birth and has an adopted daughter with severe developmental disabilities who is also blind. She is unable to come and go freely from home, except for a few hours a week when she has home-care assistance. “This results in my needing my computer a lot—for Web browsing, e-mail, paying bills, shopping, audio access, banking and keeping track of various financial information, and probably lots of other things so routine I’m not even thinking to mention them,” she explains by e-mail. Homiak used DOS beginning in the 1980s, and more recently FreedomBox, a combined hardware/software screen-reading solution, on a Linux platform. Now her two Mac Minis—hers and her daughter’s, neither with a screen attached—have become her primary computers. VoiceOver gives Homiak “a pretty good idea of how the screen might look,” she says. “Having a representation in my mind of what would be on the screen probably helps me to retain information, but what is most important to me is to be able to navigate and accomplish my tasks. I find that for the most part I can do this quite efficiently on the Mac with VoiceOver.”

Mike Shebanek, a senior product manager for Mac OS X, explains that his team “wanted to translate that neat experience of the Macintosh—the ease of use, the simplicity, the consistency—into a nonsighted experience.” And with a sort of closed captioning—a high-contrast panel that displays in text what’s being spoken—VoiceOver seeks to appeal to people with a range of abilities, including children and the elderly. Mac’s standard product now meets the most basic definition of universal design. “Traditional screen readers suck all of the data out of a Web page, reformat it, and reconstitute it into something different, so there’s no correlation in how it appears to a sighted user and how they access it,” Shebanek says. “We wanted to design a system that enables people to work together more easily whether they’re sighted or not. Which is what accessibility is all about: inclusion.”

For Web accessibility this marks a striking departure. Before the Mac and Windows popularized GUIs, when nearly everything displayed was text and there was no mouse, screen-reading technology straightforwardly spoke what was on screen. But even more than the shift to a “windows”-based operating system, the Web has made that approach less than ideal. Because Web sites are graphical interfaces, surfing them means navigating a visual landscape. Yet Web-site design remains caught in a hybrid existence of text and image. For the vision impaired the results can be hit and miss.

This is the realm in which David Schafer works. Until his autumn departure, he was design manager of VisionConnection—a Web site providing information on vision impairments run by the service, research, and advocacy nonprofit Lighthouse International—which made him one of the strangest art directors around: he designed a Web site for an audience that mostly can’t see it. “You’re still designing,” he points out. “You’re still saying this needs focus or needs to feel more important. It’s the same idea, but I guess many designers are attached to the aesthetics.” VisionConnection looks uncluttered and crisp—a showpiece for a legible screen-reader-compatible site. Each time it appears in the browser the screen momentarily feels as if the brightness has been turned up. Following the advice of Lighthouse researchers, Schafer incorporated generously sized sans-serif type and high-contrast menus with light letters on a dark background. VisionConnection, like many sites, also allows users to change the type size, background, and text colors since certain vision diseases affect specific color spectrums.

The links’ color contrast changes as you slide over them, exaggerating some browsers’ subtle cursor shift from arrow to finger—certainly not a unique feature but one exaggerated to serve the site’s readership.

However, it’s VisionConnection’s “text-only” option that makes the impact of the Web’s GUI apparent. The screen looks like a flashback to 1994, with lines of left-justified text and words underlined to show that they are what we used to call hyperlinks. What it looks like, of course, doesn’t matter—the text-only mode is designed to be compatible with the current generation of screen readers. Its goal—and that of Web accessibility in general—has been to disentangle the Web’s hybrid existence of text and image. “The big philosophical idea is that you’re separating structure from presentation,” Schafer explains. “You can even go a step further and say the way a site acts should be separate from how it’s structured and how it looks.”

Making this work depends heavily on the use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), an open standard for Web design. Instead of including the font, color, and layout of a site in an HTML document, CSS contain that information in a separate file, which is often applied to pages site-wide. Designers aren’t explicitly dictating the form of a site; they are providing the parameters for the way content is displayed. How a page looks is based on prescribed rules, not a fixed design. There are administrative reasons for this—making graphical changes doesn’t require altering every page individually—but increasingly it is a result of the range of places Web sites are displayed. CSS make it easy to reformat a site to be viewed on a cell phone or by a screen reader.

Either way graphic designers’ sacred link between form and content is potentially junked. The promise of the Web for people with disabilities—the very fact that they can adapt it to their needs—highlights the fluidity of how the Web looks, which is of enormous consequence for design. In his 1997 book Interface Culture, Steven Johnson wrote that the Web browser “is a window looking out into dataspace, separating user and information, but also shaping that information in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.” This flexibility—whether in the form of hyperlinks or style sheets—is the boon of the Web. It also parallels a major change in what we talk about when we talk about design. Already the definition of design has been stretched to include business strategy, the creation of experiences, and evolution itself. Accessible Web design further erodes the visual as design’s crucial component.

And yet if Apple is a harbinger of the future—as is so often the case—accessible interface design will begin to reincorporate the visual. VoiceOver is a step toward bridging the gap that the conceptual and technological leap of the graphical user interface created. For Shebanek it’s the logical consequence of Apple’s emphasis on innovation and ease of use—an extension of the impulse that drove the creation of the Mac and its GUI in the first place. “The whole point here is that we want the Macintosh to be easy to use for everyone,” he explains with a Karl Rovian clarity of message.

That’s impossibly ambitious. Mike Coulombe, a blind VoiceOver user in Cathedral City, California, started switching to the Mac last summer because for nearly the same price as a copy of JAWS software he could buy a whole new eMac computer. But he finds the information VoiceOver communicates about the screen’s appearance an unwelcome distraction. “You don’t need that if you don’t have vision,” he says piercingly. He finds navigating a Web page’s content spatially unnecessary, preferring to listen to the page straight through as if it were text only. And yet Coulombe’s comments sound like all Windows versus Mac debates: What does it matter how the computer looks if I just want to get things done? Homiak, on the other hand, is a Mac convert. “Using the Mac with VoiceOver has greatly enlarged my Web accessibility,” she writes. “This is partly due to the limitations of text-based screen readers with regard to the design of some Web sites, but I do find that a Web site in Safari [Apple’s Web browser] with VoiceOver often has more information than I was seeing with the text browser.”

Apple’s approach—and the likelihood of it being the direction accessible Web design is heading—speaks to the promise of universal design: the best accessible design is simply the best design. Just as OXO’s famous Good Grips kitchen line and the Aeron chair demonstrated that ease of use and flexibility can transcend to elegance, Apple’s refusal to strip away the visual—indeed its steps toward reimagining that experience for nonsighted users—shows the enormous possibility of the Web as a model host for both universal design and a more inclusive society.

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