text formatting for the blind

Text formatting is used in many areas, from books, newspapers, articles, websites, and documents. Paragraphs, headings, lists, italics, bold, and many other characteristics are used to emphasize, denote chapters, and mark changes in scenes or actions. Sighted users can use formatting to find points of interest in text. What about people who are blind? Is formatting effective for us? Can it be useful?

In this article, I will explore text formatting, and how blind people use it or dismiss it. Like all of my other articles, this one will contain opinions. This area is one that I feel should be discussed, however, because it is an area of inclusion that I feel blind people have ignored, and sighted people haven’t generally approached.


Text formatting is pretty much just information about text to a computer. A bolded word, an italicized title, a heading line, or a list of items are all ways of formatting. Sighted people see all this in the context of their chosen font, but screen readers only read, by default, a small set of textual attributes, and only by describing what the attribute is.

If a screen reader user turns on the reading of styles or formatting, the screen reader will, italics on describe italics off, the formatting, which can become verbose, and sometimes doesn’t help because the screen reader doesn’t pause after speaking formatting characteristics, meaning that the user has to quickly parse what the screen reader is saying.

So, is that it? Is the only choice for a user to hear little to no formatting information, or hear it all in a quick procession of words? There are other options, better in fact than anything done by most visual interfaces so far.

How blind people format text

Blind people have a few ways of formatting text. The visual method requires users to press a command, write their text, press the command again, and review formatting with the screen reader. Braille allows blind people to feel formatting, if supported by the screen reader. Markup languages allow blind people to type formatting symbols around text, which they can review with normal text navigation functions.


The most popular way of formatting for sighted users, choosing a formatting attribute from a tool bar, is also how blind people format, most of the time, using keyboard commands. It is easy because it is familiar. All word processors support this, using similar keyboard commands for bold, italics, underline, and indentation. Some word processors, like LibreOffice on Windows, do not speak when these keyboard commands are pressed, so users have to trust in their keyboarding.

The problem with this approach is that one has to turn on the reading of font information, like styles, for a screen reader user to be sure when a particular formatting style begins and ends, and that a program may not speak when formatting commands are pressed. Screen readers do, usually, read headings and lists without needing settings changes, but that’s about all. JAWS for Windows can be configured to speak or play sounds for formatting, but most users do not realize that this feature is available, and so it is not used.

Not all is lost, however. Narrator now has the ability to read formatting using different speech settings, like a change in pitch, volume, or rate. VoiceOver on the Mac can "beep" for formatting changes, although that doesn’t tell us which formatting information was used. NVDA has begun working on refactoring its speech system, so in the future, NVDA may be able to do what Narrator does, and more. Imagine hearing sounds for each text attribute, instead of even having vocal indications.


Braille is a tactile way of reading, and has plenty of standards for showing formatting. If you get a book from a library in braille, it is likely to have been formatted very well. Reading braille via screen reader, however, is often a bland experience, with little to no formatting information. Screen readers do show abbreviated symbols for item types like headings, lists, and links, but not italics, bold, underline, or anything else. One can use Status Cells, dots at the end of a display used in a few screen readers to show text attributes, but these are imprecise, as a formatted word would show, on that status cell, as if the whole line were formatted. iOS uses this technique. The largest problem with this is that there are standard braille symbols for formatting, supported by the Liblouis translator at least; they simply aren’t used. In Safari, formatted text is often placed in its own item, but that still doesn’t tell us which text attribute was used.

The only screen reader that currently shows any text formatting is NVDA. It can show emphasized text, but that’s all I’ve found. It used to show more, and why it doesn’t now I don’t know. The Braille Extender addon adds the ability for NVDA to show paragraph indentation. All other screen readers just show words, just like speech, without any trace of formatting.

Text Markup

Text markup languages, like Markdown, Org-mode, and HTML allow the user to write a document, web page, blog post, or book using formatting that anyone can read. Screen readers may need to be set to speak most punctuation, and in the case of Markdown and Org-mode, set to repeat more than three characters. This is even used in contexts where it is not supported, like Email, forum posts, and texts.

This type of formatting, for now, is the most accessible. It can be read using speech or braille, and can often be previewed in a browser or other format if a user isn’t confident in using the markup style. Because of this level of accessibility, I believe that Markdown, or even better, Org-mode, should be a part of text editing, everywhere, in all operating systems. A user could write in Markdown, and the text would visually be formatted, allowing all those *italics* to not go to waste. If you use Emacs with Emacspeak, you hear formatting when reading websites, Markdown and Org-mode files, and syntax highlighting with source code.

Why blind people dismiss formatting

If you are sighted, imagine a world with no formatting. No italics, no bold, no underline, just some headings, lists, and block quotes, all practically the same, and absolutely no color. This is, even using braille display, what blind people get. There aren’t even any separate paragraphs, just chunks of text on mobile and Mac, and one long page with some headings for division on Windows. Would you enjoy this?

If you are blind, you already know this world, and probably don’t consider the possibility that at least one word on this page is italicized, because for you, there is no formatting; it simply doesn’t exist. Blind people don’t particularly like formatting because we can’t really use it on the most popular system, Windows, with the most popular screen readers, NVDA and JAWS, without much frustration. We don’t dismiss it because we don’t like the idea, we dismiss it because we don’t have access to that information, and don’t see the uses for it.

How formatting can be useful

Let’s start with the obvious. Headings can mark chapters of a book, sections of an article, and allow quick navigation through a page for blind people. Lists are useful for itemizing content. Block quotes are useful for long quotations.

What about the more invisible formatting, at least for blind people? Italics is great for emphasizing things, bold makes things stand out, and underlining is good for making something notable. If screen readers spoke these things using differing speech parameters, or even sounds, I’m sure that most blind people would find that they add some color to our Grey, lifeless text, and make things we write look much better to sighted readers.


What do you think, reader? Do you care about formatting enough to use Pandoc on just about every Word document, like me, in order to see formatting? Would you rather not know about formatting on your favorite websites? If you can see, do you not really notice formatting, or do you find it essential and beautiful? Please, let me know. I’d love to hear your feedback, whether it come through Email, Twitter, or even a contribution to my blog’s Github repository. Again, thanks for reading!

legally blind

Have you ever downloaded a file that you didn’t have permission to get? I have, many times in the past. This post, about copyright issues faced by blind people, may spark much debate in our community, but I feel that it must be written. It will cover games, books, films, and software which blind people copy, the justifications for doing so, and the harm that it can cause.


It was said, about 50 years ago, that some 70 percent of blind people are unemployed. That fact, as overused as it is, is the number that appears to be the most up-to-date data easily found. My experience is that, indeed, many blind people are still unemployed. This correlates well with illegal copying of files which will be discussed in this article.

As usual with articles I write, I’ll start with defining terms. I call the downloading or sharing of files which the user doesn’t have the right to do so “illegal sharing,” “filesharing,” or “illegal copying.” Most people just call it “piracy,” or “online piracy,” which I find is more of a scare tactic and an attempt to put all the blame on the sharer to further dramatize the alleged crime.

Blind people are in a unique position regarding filesharing. All of our digital entertainment and livelihood is digital data, whether it be books, music, movies, or programs. This can be true for sighted people as well, but we’ll get to why blind people are more likely to illegally download later in this article.

As for me, I have illegally downloaded plenty of material in my teenage years. Now that I have a job and good income, I can afford to buy whatever is available to me, but I write this article remembering when I could not buy, and the people who still do not have the money, or inclination, to buy digital material.


Many people like playing games, and this is true for blind people as well. Before we got computers, I remember playing Uno as a child at the school for the blind I grew up in. When we did get computers, however, I did begin playing games created specifically for blind people, called Audio Games.

I remember downloading one game in particular, and because I had no money, cracking it, meaning that the game was made a full version instead of a demo, without purchasing an activation key. I spent many afternoons after school on that game, and eventually getting into others. Now, I rarely play audio games, focusing on video games instead, which I find, personally, provide more enjoyment.

Video games, however, are also not safe from illegal copying. I’ve downloaded many video games, new and old, without purchasing them. From Mortal Kombat to Skullgirls, I’ve downloaded many video games when audio ones weren’t enough. I no longer have the illegally downloaded copies.

I, however, am not the only one. Recently, the audio games forum has begun inforcing rules about linking to illegal sharing sites or files, and there has been some backlash and discontent regarding such a policy. Users have threatened to leave, site addresses have been censored, and filesharing has most likely been pushed even further into private or less formal locations. However, there are those less formal locations for such a reason, away from a public forum.


Reading is something that blind people have enjoyed, with independence, ever since the adoption of braille. Reading became even more widespread with the introduction of audio books, chiefly lead by the National Library Service (NLS), which basically gives blind and print disabled people free braille or audio books. The downloadable audio books are protected by a special key delivered by the NLS server, so one cannot simply listen to the book outside of NLS’ apps. This service, however, has not proven to be enough for some readers.

There are many ways for a person to consume the written word, and many devices to do it on. The NLS BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) app is only available on iOS and Android mobile devices, and perhaps can also be made to work on Chromebooks using the Android app. This means that if a user prefers to listen to books while on a computer, he or she will need to find a book from elsewhere without restrictions on usage. The NLS also may not have a reader’s favorite narrator. Audible books, however, are quite expensive, leaving the user to illegally share that book. Readers may also want to simply read a book on their computer using a screen reader. If one does not have a subscription to Bookshare, then Epub books must also be illegally downloaded if the reader does not have the money to buy them.

There is also a great service called Graphic Audio, which creates a dramatized audio play of books, with a full cast, sound and music, and abridgment of some nonessential scenes. These titles can be very entertaining, but are also costly if one wants to listen to an entire series. On the other hand, they also have frequent discounts up to 40%, so one can take advantage of those. Even then, these titles often are illegally shared as well.


Many blind people do watch television and movies, although I usually do not. I have done so in the past, however, and remember getting plenty of films’ audio files with descriptions of visual content added. This “described” television is very popular with completely blind people, who want to participate in today’s culture.

There are a few sites online today which provide no video content, but simply audio files containing the film’s audio track, with the described content added on. These provide the same level of access that a DVD would that contains description, but with a much smaller file size. I thought nothing, during my teenage years, of sharing this to friends simply by copying a folder full of described content onto flash drives, and the same is done over the Internet today.

Streaming content subscriptions have become today’s Cable subscriptions, and many blind people have simply signed up for one or two of those. Almost all of them provide at least some description in their content, and Apple TV Plus has provided it since its launch last year. However, some blind people still share this content with descriptions, in order to not pay a monthly subscription along with more essential needs.


Blind people may not be the majority of software filesharers, but sighted people have not, in the past, needed to pay $10,99 for a software package to access their screen. Indeed, while free options, like NVDA, are gaining in ability and popularity, JAWS for Windows is still more customizable. In the last year, Freedom Scientific has offered a subscription plan: JAWS and updates for $100 per year, but they still cannot compete with free, which continues to net NVDA more users. Now, however, more and more blind people are able to do what they need on mobile devices, which include a screen reader out of the box.

I’ve said on some occasions that Text-to-speech voices are for blind people what fonts are for sighted users. We may like different voices for different contexts, and there isn’t one voice that clearly beats any competition. Many voices that we use now sound more natural, but do not quite have the rhythm and intonation of speech correct. Older voices may sound more robotic, but also more smooth, and even if a word is mispronounced, it is pronounced the same way every time. One of these older, and more popular, speech engines is Eloquence. Some blind people do not like it, but many others do. There is only one problem: it hasn’t been updated since the early 2000’s.

Eloquence is known most for being the voice that JAWS has used for many years. It was also used in Window-Eyes and many other screen readers, and is also usable on Linux and was recently abandoned on Android. Years ago, Nuance, the owners of the popular Vocalizer voices, bought Eloquence, but have done nothing to update ot, or offer it directly to customers. A few companies have tried to offer legal versions, but the one I was gifted, a version which works directly with NVDA, does not work even as well as unofficial, illegally shared versions. In fact, after a restructure of NVDA broke compatibility with the legal version, an unofficial version was made to work before a new version of codeFactory’s was released.

Blind people may even fileshare entire operating systems. In order to experience Apple’s MacOS operating system without having to buy a Mac or get a taxi to the nearest Apple Store, users download a virtual machine containing MacOS to try, or even use long term, on a Windows computer. This may extend a user’s access to services which may be inaccessible or hard to use on Windows.

Justifications of Filesharing

Many blind people are poor. We look for jobs, but some people can’t find one that they are confident in doing no matter what. Family members may hold young adults back from looking for a job for overbearing reasons. Government agencies may not respond to calls for help, and Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are unlikely to hire just any blind person, no matter the few success stories.

This means that blind people do not have the money to buy products, or if they receive supplemental income, they, or their parents, use it for food, rent, and other necessities. Of course, this simply means that more jobs must become accessible to blind people, and government organizations should implement more outreach to people with disabilities who seek employment. This does not mean that the government should pay for a blind person’s entertainment and digital access, however. I believe that people with disabilities need jobs, not more government money.

Blind people may feel that, because they do not have a job, and aren’t likely to get one, that because filesharing is possible and easy, they are entitled to get content. These people may illegally download material, even if they have extra income as well, as they feel entitled to it. They don’t usually hang out in public forums, preferring more private areas of the Internet.

Some content may not be available for purchase. This includes games which must be emulated to provide accessibility. I, for example, love playing dissidia Final Fantasy. This game can be made accessible using OCR technology which finds text in graphical content like games, and is built into most screen readers. I can read the menus, battle information, and unspoken character dialog, but only on a computer, as the Playstation Portable didn’t have any accessibility tools. I worked around this by buying the game on the Playstation Network store, then downloading the game file from elsewhere, as the PSN store doesn’t allow downloading the purchased PSP game.

This will become harder to work around, however, as older games may become accessible using other methods. For example, where would one legally purchase a digital copy of a Super Nintendo, Sega Megadrive, or Gameboy game? Emulation, in this case, is used to add accessibility to a game, and not for the express purpose of simply having a free game. Most gamers, however, just download the game files, ROM’s, without regard to buying it. Many developers may not mind users downloading 8 or more year old games.

The harm of illegal downloading

What if you wrote a book, and sold it, but months later it was sold using slightly different names? That is what happened to a few developers of audio games. Called “clones,” these games used the same programming, but slightly different music and names for items.

I believe that filesharing can lead a community to other, more noticeable problems later on, including cloning. If people do not think that they should have to pay for things which entertain them, they may find other things acceptable too. This may not effect those who are simply too poor to pay for content, or those who try to ethically fileshare, but will effect those who feel entitled to content.

Filesharing may also drive away mainstream developers from public forums. As mentioned on the audio games forum, if mainstream developers of video games see that we illegally copy books and movies, they may wish to not lose sales of their own games to the filesharers of our community.

A third problem with illegally downloading deals with developers in our own community. If they do not make money, they may not feel that developing general programs like book reader apps, or games for us isn’t worth it, so we may have one less accessible program to use. This isn’t to say that all software created by blind developers is worth it; some games and apps are pretty awful. I do say, however, that we should always reward good creativity, and that goes for all creators of content and programs.


In this article, I have discussed the controversial topic of filesharing among blind people. We illegally copy just about any type of content available, although music subscription services have made filesharing music not as prevalent. There are justifications that people may make, and harmful effects that the community should be aware of.

So, my readers, what are your thoughts? Do you fileshare your way through books, films, and software? Do you have enough money to spend on entertainment and software you need? Do you feel that you shouldn’t have to buy software and media? Please, let me know your thoughts, anywhere you can submit them. I’m always eager for feedback on the articles I write. Thanks again for reading them!

Also, if anyone has ideas or articles they’d like me to host, please feel free to let me know. I will seriously consider all suggestions for topics to write about.

open source blindness

What if all of your software were free, like NVDA? What if the only thing asked of you by software makers was to donate or contribute? How would this effect your life, and the lives of developers? In this article, I will explain what open source is, what it is currently used for, my experiences with it, and how you can make it better.

What is Open Source?

Open source is a splinter of the Free Software movement. The Free Software movement believes that everyone should be able to view a program's code, and modify it if needed. The thing which sets open source apart is that it doesn't mind working with companies which create closed source, or proprietary, software which cannot be modified or have its source code seen by the user.

When free and open source spokespeople talk about freedom, they mean free as in free speech, not as in free things. This talk of freedom upsets business, so the term "open source" is used instead. Much open source software is free of cost, with the developers asking for donation instead of demanding payment.

What is Open Source used for?

Open source software is just about everywhere, and often comes with a tightly knit community of users. Examples of open source in the blind community include NVDA, LibreOffice, Orca Screen Reader, Braille Blaster, Liblouis, and Emacspeak. Examples of closed source include JAWS for Windows, Narrator, VoiceOver, the latest version of TalkBack, Duxberry Braille translator, iOS, Windows, and plenty of apps you may have on your iPhone or Android phone.

Interestingly, some projects are a mixture of both. JAWS incorporates Liblouis for braille translation, and so do Narrator and VoiceOver. Apple uses plenty of open source tools: Python, command line shells, and many command line tools on MacOS. Microsoft makes BRLTTY and Liblouis available for download to interface with Narrator.

Linux, which founded many offshoots, is an entire operating system built on open source ideals. Blind people began customizing Linux for use with speech, and work is ongoing to make Linux an accessible operating system. This began with Vinux. It started up talking, something no other system had done before. One could use it with speech or braille, and used the eSpeak voices.

That operating system, or distribution of Linux as they are called, is now abandoned, not having been updated in years. Another project, Sonar Gnu Linux, also came and went. It was based on Arch Linux, and was my favorite distribution. People now use Talking Arch, or Tarch, if they are adventurous and Slint Linux if they aren't. These are the most popular Linux distributions for those who are blind. If I've missed anything, let me know. Some distributions which were not made for the blind are also accessible. Fedora, Trisquel, Debian, and Ubuntu are also able to be installed, but the user must know the correct keyboard command to turn on the screen reader.

Most open source software can be found on Github. That's where NVDA, Orca, and many other tools, even for the blind, are. But how reliable are these tools? What about the operating system? Could one get rid of Windows with this software founded on ideals?

My experiences with Open Source


Accessibility is a software issue, so the root of software, the operating system, will make or break any accessibility. My experiences with Linux began, mainly, with an old operating system called Vinux. I didn't stick with it for long, and soon forgot about it, and it is now abandoned. Linux can run many different desktops, which give users the major system functions of accessing apps and system utilities. Gnome and Mate are accessible, just about everything else, for now, including KDE, isn't. Vinux used Gnome 2, which is basically what Mate is now.

I came back to Linux for a short while with Sonar. I really liked it, but missed the games and speech options Windows had. I liked all the software that we have access to on Windows, and browsing the Internet with Linux wasn't that good back then. I soon got into the Apple ecosystem with an iPhone and such, and already had a Mac for quite a while. Still, Linux called to me.

I'm never satisfied with the workflow I have. I always want to be more efficient, more quick, more capable in what I do. I always want better sound, even if 3D effects and virtual surround sound aren't actually necessary or real. Like a sighted person wants great graphics, I want great sound. On Linux, there is a way to enable virtual surround sound, but it offers little reward, and much configuration, crackling in audio, and doesn't augment stereo audio as options on other systems does. The Mac has a third-party option, Boom 3D, and Windows has Windows Sonic for Headphones. Both of these require nearly no configuration, augments much more audio, and only Boom 3D causes a bit of sluggishness.

I also want a faster way of doing things. Many keyboard shortcuts, letter navigation of items in lists and menus, and ways of only getting the information I want. I have much of this on the Mac, with the Mail app allowing me, through table navigation, to speed through subjects instead of having to hear the row titles and contents and all before what I really want to hear, and being able to go to the previous or next message in a thread without needing to close the window. Linux has some of this, but many times things are unclear, with Orca, the Linux screen reader, just speaking the items, and not what type of item it is. This is clear in the area of Audacious settings where you choose sound effects.

Even so, Linux has such an appeal to me. I have tried Fedora Linux, Slint, Ubuntu, Debian, Arch, and found that there is always something missing. Accessibility isn't that good in the graphical interface, and much still takes a lot of configuring and asking the community. And I really hate asking for help.

Recently, the Mate desktop team has released a version with accessibility fixes. This is important, as many companies, like app developers, Apple, and Google, rarely share that there are accessibility fixes in minor updates, and don't even share all the new features in major releases. This gives me some hope that the open source community at large just needs more blind people telling them about our needs. Then again, this is probably just another of my excuses to bash my head against the hardened wall of Linux, yet again. Plus, everything in the open source moves slowly, and this is doubly true for open source assistive technology.

There are, however, blind people who use Linux, just as there are some in the blind community who use Android. In fact, there is an entire Linux Accessibility Site. However, the site does have links to abandoned software, and doesn't link to all accessibility initiatives, like Stormux. Both Linux-a11y and Stormux ask for donations, so there is also duplicated effort and decentralization even in the blind Linux user community.

Now, I use a Mac. It contains enough open source technology to support Homebrew, a package manager. I can run Emacs, with Emacspeak on it, along with just about any command line program I'd use on Linux. The Mac's graphical interface is good enough for mail and some web browsing, just not so good with Google Docs, and I can probably do anything on it that a Linux user can do.

And yet, sometimes, Linux calls to me still. VoiceOver isn't the best screen reader out there, and Linux has the appeal of being run by people, not corporations. And yet, looking at the GNU accessibility statement, you'd think it was updated in 2006 or so. It may have been, which is a slap in the face for any accessibility advocate. The GNU project, with this statement, says to us that we're only worth putting up a quick page, detailing the inaccessibility of old technologies and not maintaining it. It tells us that we're a good poster to hang up in their trophy room of "people aided by our courageous stand for the minorities who desperately need our help," but then discarded for the "community" to handle. After all, the GNU don't know anything about helping the blind, do they? Can the GNU be expected to enforce accessibility among their projects? Doesn't the government take care of the poor blind people? Blind people have their Vinux and Sonar, why not just use those? No, that is definitely not segregation, not at all!

Open Source Programs

I began using NVDA around high school. No one had ever heard of it at that point, in a day when people called all screen readers either "JAWS" or "Microsoft." I've not stopped using it ever sense. Its features have grown, its users growing even faster. It now has a community of programmers, translators, and writers. It is, in my opinion, the most versatile Windows screen reader. JAWS still works okay for some things, like malformed spreadsheets, but for everything else on Windows, I use NVDA.

Braille Blaster is also a great project, making braille translation, embossing, and transcription free. I use it for translating EBooks into good, formatted braille files for reading on my iPhone using the BARD Mobile app. Now, I don't even use Duxberry, even though it is provided on my work computer.

I've found that open source programs, built upon closed source operating systems, are the best compromise. NVDA, BrailleBlaster, TDSR, and many other tools built for the blind community run on Windows or Mac. Having a great foundation in accessibility makes all the difference for users.

How can You help?

Github, as stated earlier, is a hub of open source projects. One great thing about the service is that anyone can contribute. Just make an account, and you're ready to help.

If you can program, you can collaborate by modifying code. If you try the software and find accessibility problems, you can tell developers about bugs or features that need fixing or adding. If you find a project you like, they may have a Patreon to which you can donate, or you can simply spread the word.

One large project which has become accessible through efforts of the blind reaching out is Retroarch. An issue was created asking for accessibility, and it was released in the very next version, and even more work is being done to make even more games accessible. Open source collaboration is great for even more than just programming. See projects I'm working on, all text, on the About page of my original blog.

Another bit of news is that GTK, a way for programs to be displayed and written, has had a Hackfest, where accessibility was extensively discussed. It is hoped that this means that accessibility will become a larger issue in Linux, and that blind people will one day be able to use Linux as confidently as they use Windows and Mac now.


As time goes by, I find myself drawn to open source. its promise of a better way of making software, the community of helpful people, and the freedom give me hope. While the Linux operating system does not come close to satisfying the hope I have for accessibility, programs and initiatives on top of Windows and Mac have thrived. While the poor accessibility statement of the GNU project shows that the community at large does not yet care much about accessibility, the community of blind people working for our own future, rather than that of a corporation, gives me hope of a bright future of digital accessibility for blind people.

What do you think, reader? Does open source call to you as well? Do you just use whatever system you're given? Have you made peace with Linux's shortcomings around accessibility? Please, let me know. I am glad to receive feedback. If you'd like, you may even suggest, via email or Twitter, articles for which you feel passionate about that need coverage. I will consider all that you send me, and thank you for reading.

Apple’s accessibility consistency

This article will explore Apple’s consistent attention to accessibility, and how other tech companies with commitments to accessibility, like Microsoft and Google, compare to Apple in their accessibility efforts. It also shows where these companies can improve their consistency, and that no company is perfect at being an Assistive Technology provider yet.


Apple has shown a commitment to accessibility since the early days of the iPhone, and since mac OSX Tiger. Its VoiceOver screen reader was the first built-in screen reader of any usability on a personal computer and smart phone. Now, VoiceOver is on every Apple product, even the HomePod. It is so prevalent that people I know have begun calling any screen reader “VoiceOver.” This level of consistency should be congratulated in a company of Apple’s size and wealth. But is this a continual trend, and what does this mean for competitors?

This will be an opinion piece. I will not stick only to the facts as we have them, and won’t give sources for everything which I show as fact. This article is a testament to how accessibility can be made a fundamental part of a brand’s experience for effected people, so feelings and opinions will be involved.

The trend of accessibility

The following sections of the article will explore companies trends of accessibility so far. The focus is on Apple, but I’ll also show some of what its competitors have done over the years as well. As Apple has a greater following of blind people, and Applevis has documented so much of Apple’s progress, I can show more of it than I can its competitors, whose information written by their followers are scattered, thus harder to search for.


Apple has a history of accessibility, shown by this article. Written just under a decade ago, it goes over the previous decade’s advancements. As that article has done, I will focus on little of a company’s talk of accessibility, but more so its software releases and services.

Apple is, by numbers and satisfaction, the leader in accessibility for users of its mobile operating systems, but not in general purpose computer operating systems. Microsoft’s Windows is used far more than Apple’s MacOS. Besides that, and services, Apple has made its VoiceOver screen reader on iOS much more powerful, and even flexible, than its competitor, Google’s TalkBack.


As iPhones were released each year, so were newer versions of iOS. In iOS 6, accessibility settings began working together, VoiceOver’s Rotor gained a few new abilities, new braille displays worked with VoiceOver, and bugs were fixed. In iOS 7, we gained the ability to have more than one high quality voice, more Rotor options, and the ability to write text using handwriting.

Next, iOS 8 was pretty special to me, personally, as it introduced the method of writing text that I almost always use now, Braille Screen Input. This lets me type on the screen of my phone in braille, making my typing exponentially faster. Along with typing, I can delete text, a word or character, and now, send messages from within the input mode. I can also change braille contraction levels, and lock orientation into one of two typing modes. Along with this, Apple added the Alex voice, its most natural yet, which was only before available on a Mac. For those who do not know braille or handwriting, a new “direct touch typing” method allows a user to type as quickly as a sighted person, if they can memorize exactly where the keys are, or have spell check and autocorrection enabled.

In iOS 9, VoiceOver users are able to choose Siri voices to speak using VoiceOver, as an extension of the list of Vocalizer voices, and Apple’s Alex voice. One can now control speech rate more easily, and the speed of speech can be greater than previously possible. One can control the time a double tap should take, a better method of selecting text, braille screen input improvements, and braille display fixes and new commands.

Then, iOS 10 arrived, with a new way to organize apps, a pronunciation dictionary, even more voices, reorganized settings, new sounds for actions, a way to navigate threaded email, and some braille improvements. One great thing about the pronunciation editor is that it does not only apply to the screen reader, as in many Windows screen readers, but to the entire system speech. So, if you use VoiceOver, but also Speak Screen, both will speak as you have set them to. This is a testament to Apple’s attention to detail, and control of the entire system.

With the release of iOS 11, we gained the ability to type to Siri, new Siri voices, verbosity settings, the ability to have subtitles read or brailled, and the ability to change the speaking pitch of the voice used by VoiceOver. VoiceOver can now describe some images, which will be greatly expanded later. We can now find misspelled words, which will also be expanded later. One can now add and change commands used by braille displays, which, yes, will be expanded upon later. A few things which haven’t been expanded upon yet are the ability to read formatting, however imprecise, with braille “status cells,” and the “reading” of Emoji. Word wrap and a few other braille features were also added.

Last year, in iOS 12, Apple added commands to jump to formatted text for braille display users, new Siri voices, verbosity options, confirmation of rotor actions and sent messages, expansion of the “misspelled” rotor option for correcting the misspelled word, and the ability to send VoiceOver to an HDMI output.

Finally, In iOS 13, Apple moved accessibility to the main settings list, out of the General section, provided even more natural Siri voices, haptics for VoiceOver, to aid alongside, or replace, the sounds already present, and the ability to modify or turn them off. A “vertical scroll bar” has also been added, as another method of scrolling content. VoiceOver can now give even greater suggestions for taking pictures, aligning the camera, and with the iPhone 11, what will be in the picture. One can also customize commands for the touch screen, braille display, and keyboard, expanding the ability braille users already had. One can even assign Siri shortcuts to a VoiceOver command, as Mac users have been able to do with Apple Script. One can now have VoiceOver interpret charts and graphs, either via explanations of data, or by an audible representation of them. This may prove extremely useful in education, and for visualizing data of any type. Speaking detected text has improved over the versions to include the detecting of text in unlabeled controls, and now can attempt to describe images as well. Braille users now have access to many new braille tables, like Esperanto and several other languages, although braille no longer switches languages along with speech.


MacOS has not seen so much improvement in accessibility over the years. VoiceOver isn’t a bad screen reader, though. It can be controlled using a trackpad, which no other desktop screen reader can boast. It can be used to navigate and activate items with only the four arrow keys. It uses the considerable amount of voices available on the Mac and for download. It simply isn’t updated nearly as often as VoiceOver for iOS.

OSX 10.7, 10.8, and 10.9 have seen a few new features, like more VoiceOver voices, braille improvement, and other things. I couldn’t find much before Sierra, so we’ll start there.

In Sierra, Apple added VoiceOver commands for controlling volume, to offset the absence of the physical function keys in new MacBook models. VoiceOver can also now play a sound for row changes in apps like Mail, instead of interrupting itself to announce “one row added,” because Apple’s speech synthesis server on the Mac doesn’t innately support a speech queue. This means that neither does VoiceOver, so interruptions must be worked around. Some announcements were changed, HTML content became web areas, and interaction became “in” and “out of” items. There were also bug fixes in this release.

In High Sierra, one can now type to Siri, VoiceOver can now switch languages when reading multilingual text, as VoiceOver on the iPhone has been able to do since iOS 5 at least, improved braille editing and PDF reading support, image descriptions, and improved HTML 5 support.

In MacOS Mojave, Apple added the beginning of new iPad apps on Mac. These apps work poorly with VoiceOver, even still in Catalina. There were no new reported VoiceOver features in this release.

This year, In MacOS Catalina, Apple added more control of punctuation, and XCode 11’s text editor is now a little more accessible, even though the Playgrounds function isn’t, and the Books app can now, after years of being on the Mac, be used for basic reading of books. Braille tables from iOS 13 are also available in MacOS.

The future of Apple accessibility

All of these changes, however, were discovered by users. Apple doesn’t really talk about all of its accessibility improvements, just some of the highlights. While I see great potential in accessible diagrams and graphs, Apple didn’t mention this, and users had to find this. Subsequently, there may be fixes and features that we still haven’t found, three versions of iOS 13 later. Feedback between Apple and its customers has never been great, and this is only to Apple’s detriment. Since Apple rarely responds to little feedback, users feel that their feedback doesn’t mean anything, so they stop sending it. Also of note is that on VoiceOver’s Mac accessibility page, the “Improved PDF, web, and messages navigation” section is from macOS 10.13, two versions behind what is currently new in VoiceOver.

Another point is that services haven’t been the most accessible. Chief among them is Apple Arcade, which has no accessible games, so far. Apple research, I’ve found, has some questions which have answers that are simply unlabeled buttons. While Apple TV Plus has audio description for all of their shows, this is a minor glimmer of light, shrouded by the inaccessibility of Apple Arcade, which features, now, over one hundred games, none of which I can play with any success. In all fairness, a blind person who is patient may be able to play a game like Dear Reader, which has some accessible items, but the main goal of that game is to find a word in a different color and correct it, which is completely at odds with complete blindness, but could be handled using speech parameter changes, audio cues, or other signals of font, color, or style changes.

Time will tell if this new direction, no responsibility for not only other developers’ work, but also the Mac and work done by other developers and flaunted by Apple, will become the norm. After all, Apple Arcade is an entire Tab of the App Store; inaccessibility is in plain view. As a counterpoint, the first iPhone software, and even the second version, was inaccessible to blind people, but now the iPhone is the most popular smart phone, in developed nations, for blind people.

Perhaps next year, Apple Arcade will have an accessible game or two. I can only hope that this outcome comes true, and not the steady stepping back of Apple from one of their founding blocks: accessibility. We cannot know, as no one at Apple tells us their plans. We aren’t the only ones, though, as mainstream technology media shows. We must grow accustom to waiting on Apple to show new things, and reacting accordingly, but also providing feedback, and pushing back against encroaching inaccessibility and decay of macOS.

Apple’s competitors

In this blog post, I compare operating systems. To me, an operating system is the root of all software, and thus, the root of all digital accessibility. With this in mind, the reader may see why it is imperative that the operating system be as accessible, easy and delightful to use, and promote productivity as much as possible. Microsoft and Google are the largest competitors of Apple in the closed source operating system space, so they are what I will compare Apple to in the following sections.


Google is the main contributor to the Android and Chromium projects. While both are open source, both are simply a base to be worked from, not the end result. Not even Google’s phones run “pure” Android, but have Google services and probably other things on the phone as well. Both, though, have varying accessibility as well. While Apple pays great attention to its mobile operating system’s accessibility, Google does not seem to put many resources towards that. However, its Chrome OS, which is used much in education, is much more easily accessible, and even somewhat of an enjoyable experience for a lite operating system.


Android was released one year after iOS. TalkBack was released as part of Android 1.6. Back then, it only supported navigation via a keyboard, trackpad, or scroll ball. It wasn’t until version 4 when touch screen access was implemented into TalkBack for phones, and up to this day, only supports commands done with one finger, two finger gestures being passed through to Android as one finger commands. TalkBack has worked around this issue by recently, in Android version 8, gaining the ability to use the finger print sensor, if available, as a gesture pad for setting options, and the ability the switch spoken language, if using Google TTS, when reading text in more than one language. TalkBack uses graphical menus for setting options otherwise, or performing actions, like deleting email. It can be used with a Bluetooth keyboard. By default, it uses Google TTS, a lower quality, offline version of speech used for things like Google Translate, Google Maps, and the Google Home. TalkBack cannot use the higher quality Google TTS voices. Instead, voices from other vendors are downloaded for more natural sound.

BrailleBack, discussed on its Google Support page, is an accessibility service which, when used with TalkBack running, provides rudamentary braille support to Android. Commands are rugged, meaningless, and unfamiliar to users of other screen readers, and TalkBack’s speech cannot be turned off while using Brailleback, meaning that, as one person helpfully provided, that one must plug in a pair of headphones and not wear them, or turn down the phone’s volume, to gain silent usage of one’s phone using braille. Silent reading is one of braille’s main selling points, but accessibility, if not given the resources necessary, can become a host of workarounds. Furthermore, brailleback must be installed onto the phone, providing another barrier to entry for many deaf-blind users, so some simply buy iPods for braille if they wish to use an Android phone for customization or contrarian reasons, or simply stick with the iPhone as most blind people do.

Now, though, many have moved to a new screen reader created by a Chinese developer, called Commentary. This screen reader does, however, have the ability to decrypt your phone if you have encryption enabled. For braille users, BRLTTY is used for braille usage. This level of customization, offset by the level of access which apps have to do anything they wish to your phone, is an edge that some enjoy living on, and it does allow things like third-party, and perhaps better screen readers, text to speech engines, apps for blind people like The vOICe, which gives blind people artificial vision, and other gray area apps like emulators, which iOS will not accept on the App Store. Users who are technically inclined do tend to thrive on Android, finding workarounds a joy to find and use, whereas people who are not, or are but do not want to fiddle with apps to replace first-party apps which do not meet the needs of the user, and unoptimized settings, find themselves doing more configuring of the phone than using it.

Third party offerings, like launchers, mail apps, web browsers, file managers, all have variable accessibility, which can change from version to version. Therefore, one must navigate the shifting landscape of first party tools which may sort of be good enough, third party tools which are accessible enough but may not do everything you need, and tools which users have found workarounds for using them. Third party speech synthesizers are also hit or miss, with some not working at all, others, like Eloquence, being now unsupported, and more, like ESpeak, sounding unnatural. The only good braille keyboard which is free hasn’t been updated in years, and Google has not made one of their own.

Because of all this, it is safe to say that Android can be a powerful tool, but has not attained the focus needed to become a great accessibility tool as well. Google has begun locking down its operating system, taking away some things that apps could do before. This may come to inhibit third party tools which blind people now use to give Android better accessibility. I feel that it is better to have been on iOS, where things are locked down much, but you have, at least somewhat, a clear expectation of fairness on Apple’s part. Android is not a big income source for Google, so Google does not have to answer to app developers.

Chrome OS

Chrome OS is Google’s desktop operating system, running Chrome as the browser, with support for running Android apps. Its accessibility has improved plenty over the years, with ChromeVox gaining many features which make it a good screen reader. You can read more about chromeVox.

One of the main successes to ChromeVox is its braille support. It is normal for most first-party screen readers to support braille nowadays. When one plugs in a braille display to a Chromebook with ChromeVox enabled, ChromeVox begins using that display automatically, if it is supported. The surprise here is that if one plugs it in when ChromeVox is off, ChromeVox will automatically turn on, and begin using the display. This is beyond what other screen readers can do. ChromeVox, and indeed TalkBack, do not yet support scripting, editing punctuation and pronounciation speech, and do not have “activities” as VoiceOver for iOS and Mac have, but ChromeVox feels much more polished and ready for use than TalkBack.

The future of Google accessibility

Judging by the past, Google may add a few more features to TalkBack, but less than Apple adds to iOS. They have much to catch up on, however, as they have only two years ago added the ability for TalkBack to detect and switch languages, and use the finger print sensor like VoiceOver’s rotor. I have not seem much change over the two years since, except making a mode for tracking focus from a toggle to a mandatory feature. I suspect that, in time, they will remove the option to disable explore by touch, if they’ve not already.

With Chrome OS, and Google Chrome in general, I hope that the future brings better things, now that Microsoft is involved in Chromium development. It could become even more tied to web standards. Perhaps ChromeVox will gain better sounding offline voices than Android’s lower quality Google TTS ones, or gain sounds performed using spacial audio for deeper immersion.


Microsoft makes only one overarching operating system, with changes for XBox, HoloLens, personal computers, and other types of hardware. Windows has always been the dominant operating system for general purpose computing for blind people. It hasn’t always been accessible, and it is only in recent years that Microsoft have actively turned their attention to accessibility on Windows and XBox.

Now, Windows’ accessibility increases with each update, and Narrator becomes a more useful screen reader. I feel that, in a year or so, blind people may be trained to use Narrator instead of other screen readers on Windows.


In the early days of Windows, there were many different screen readers competing for dominance. JAWS, Job Access with Speech, was the most dominant, with Window-Eyes, now abandoned, as second. They gathered information from the graphics card to describe what was on the screen. There were no accessibility interfaces back then.

Years later, when MSAA, Microsoft Active Accessibility, was created, Window-Eyes decided to lean on that, while JAWS continued to use video intercept technology to gather information. In Windows 2000, Microsoft shipped a basic screen reader, Narrator. It wasn’t meant to be a full, useful screen reader, but one made so that a user could set up a more powerful one.

Now, we have UI Automation, which is still not a very mature product, as screen readers are still not using it for everything, like Microsoft Office. GW Micro, makers of Window-eyes, bonded with AI Squared, producers of the ZoomText magnifier, which was bought by Freedom Scientific, whom promptly abandoned Window-eyes. These days, JAWS is being taken on by NVDA, Nonvisual Desktop Access, a free and open source screen reader, and Microsoft’s own Narrator screen reader.

In Windows 8, Microsoft began adding features to Narrator. Now, in Windows 10, four years later, Narrator has proven itself useful, and in some situations, helpful in ways that all other screen readers have not been. For example, one can install, setup, and begin using Windows 10 using Narrator. Narrator is the only self-described screen reader which can, with little configuration, show formatting not by describing it, but by changing its speech parameters to “show” formatting by sound. The only other access technology which does this automatically is Emacspeak, the “complete audio desktop.” Its braille support must be downloaded and installed, for now, but is still better than Android’s support. Narrator cannot, however, use a laptop’s trackpad for navigation. Instead, Microsoft decided to add such spacial navigation to touchscreens, meaning that a user must reach up and feel around a large screen, instead of using the level trackpad as a smaller, more manageable area.

Speaking of support, Microsoft’s support system is better in a few ways. First, unlike Apple, their feedback system allows more communication between the community and Microsoft developers. Users can comment on issues, and developers can ask questions, a bit like on Github. Windows Insider builds come with announcements by Microsoft with what is new, changed, fixed, and broken. If anything changes regarding accessibility, it is in the release notes. Microsoft is vocal about what is new in accessibility of Windows, in an era when many other companies seem almost ashamed to mention it in release notes. This is much better than Apple’s silence on many builds of their beta software, and no notice of accessibility improvements and features at all. Microsoft’s transparency is a breath of fresh air to me, as I am much more confident in their commitment to accessibility for it.

Their commitment, however, doesn’t seem to pervade the whole company. The Microsoft Rewards program is hard to use for me, and contains quizzes where answers must be dragged and dropped. This may be fun for sighted users, but I cannot do them with any level of success, so they aren’t fun for me at all. Another problem is the quality of speech. While Apple has superb speech options like Macintalk Alex, Vocalizer, or the Siri voices, Microsoft’s offline voices sound bored, pause for too long, and have a robotic buzzing sound as they speak. I think that a company of Microsoft’s size could invest in better speech technology, or make their online voices available for download for offline use. Feedback has been given about this issue, so perhaps the next version of Windows will have more pleasant speech.

Windows has a few downsides, though. It doesn’t support sound through its Linux subsystem, meaning I cannot use Emacs, with Emacspeak. Narrator does not yet report when a program opens, or when a new window appears, and other visual system events. Many newer Universal Windows apps can be tricky to navigate, and the Mail app still automatically expands threads as I arrow to them, which I do not want to happen, making the mail app annoying to use.

The future of Microsoft accessibility

I think that the future of Microsoft, regarding accessibility, is very bright. They seem dedicated to the cause, seeking feedback much more aggressively than Apple or Google, and many in the blind community love giving it to them. Windows will improve further, possibly with Narrator gaining the ability to play interface sounds in immersive audio using Windows Sonic for Headphones, braille becoming a deeper, and built in part of Narrator, and higher quality speech made available for download. Since Microsoft is also a gaming company, it could work on creating sound scapes for different activities: browsing the web, writing text, coding, reading, to aid in focus or creativity. Speech synthesis could be given even more parameters for speaking even more types of formatting or interface item types. really, with Microsoft’s attention to feedback, I feel that their potential is considerable for accessibility. Then again, it is equally possible that Apple will implement these features, but they aren’t as inviting as Microsoft when it comes to sharing what I’d love in an operating system as Microsoft has been, so I now just report bugs, not giving Apple new ideas.


It may be interesting to note the symmetry of accessibility: Apple’s phone is the dominant phone, but Microsoft’s Windows platform is the dominant laptop and desktop system among blind people. Apple’s iPhone is more accessible than Google’s Android, but Google’s Chrome OS is more polished and updated accessibility-wise than Apple’s MacOS. Personally, I use a Mac because of its integration with iOS Notes, Messages, Mail, and other services, the Mail app is a joy to breeze through email with, and open source tools like Emacs with Emacspeak do not work as well on Windows. Also, speech matters to me, and I’d probably fall asleep much more often hearing Microsoft’s buzzing voices than the somewhat energetic sound of Alex on the Mac, who speaks professionally, calmly, and never gets bored. I do, however, use Windows for heavy usage of the web, especially Google web apps and services, and gaming.

Time will tell if companies continue in their paths, Apple forging ahead, Microsoft burning bright, and Google… being Google. I hope, nevertheless, that this article has been useful for the reader, and that my opinions have been as fair as possible towards the companies. It should be noted that the accessibility teams for each company are individuals, have their own ideas of what accessibility is, means, and should be, and should be treated with care. After all, this past decade has been a long journey of, probably, most effort spent convincing managers that the features we now have are worth spending time on, and answering user complaints of “my phone is talking to me and i want it turned off right now!”.

This does not excuse them for the decay of Android and Mac accessibility, and the lack of great speech options on Windows. It does not excuse them for Apple Arcade’s lack of accessible games, or Microsoft Rewards’ inaccessible quizzes. We must give honest, complete, and critical feedback to these people. After all, they do not know what we need, what will be useful, or, if we dare tell, what will be delightful for us to use, unless we give them this feedback. This applies to all software, whether it be Apple’s silent gathering of feedback, Microsoft’s open arms and inviting offers, or open source software’s issue trackers, Discord servers, mailing lists, and Github repositories. If we want improvement, we must ask for it. If we want a better future, we must make ourselves heard in the present. Let us all remember the past, so that we can influence the future.

Now, what do you think of all this? Do you believe Apple will continue to march ahead regarding accessibility, or do you think that Microsoft, or even Google, has something bigger planned? Do you think that Apple is justified in their silence, or do you hope that they begin speaking more openly about their progress, at least in release notes? Do you like how open Microsoft is about accessibility, or do they even talk about accessibility for blind users enough to you? I’d love to know your comments, corrections, and constructive criticism, either in the comments, on Twitter, or anywhere else you can find me. Thanks so much for reading!

Advocacy of open source software

In this post, I’ll detail my experiences of advocating for accessibility in open source software, why it is important, and how others can help. I’ve not been doing it for long, but at least now, I’ve done a bit. I’ll also touch upon why I think open source software, on all operating systems, is important, and what closed source and closed feedback systems cannot offer, which open source grants. On the other hand, there are things which closed source somewhat grants, but which has faltered slightly in recent days. I will attempt to denote what is fact and what is opinion, this goes for any post of a commentary of informative nature.

The Appeal of Open Source

Open source, or free software, basically means that a person can view and change the source code of software that they download or own. While this doesn’t mean much to users, it does mean that many different people can work on a project to make it better. This has no value on its own, see the "heartbleed" SSL bug and its Aftermath, but as with SSL, things can obviously improve when given an incentive.

For now, open source technology is used in many closed source operating systems. For example, the Liblouis braille tables are used in iOS, macOS, and most Linux distributions through BRLTTY. While the software is not perfect, it is often made for more than one operating system, has a helpful community of users, and, greatest for accessibility, developers who are more likely to consider accessibility. This is greatly improved with platforms for open source development, like Github and Gitlab, which allow users to post "issues" on projects, including accessibility ones.

The Appeal of Closed Source

People like getting paid. I should know, as a working blind person who does love getting paid for time and effort well spent. People love keeping things hidden while being worked on. I wouldn’t want a reader reading an incomplete blog post, after all, and spreading the word that "Devin just kind of wrote a few words and that’s all I got. from the blog." People love being able to claim their work as theirs, instead of having to share the credits with other people or companies. I don’t have direct experience with this, because I need all the help I can get, but in my opinion, it is a factor in choosing to create on your own, as a user or a company. Another great thing about closed source is that your competitors can’t copy what you’re doing, as you do it, and when you’re an important company, with allegiance to your shareholders, you must do anything to keep making money. But, what about accessibility?

Open Source Accessibility

Accessibility of open source projects vary a lot. For example, before Retroarch was made accessible, its interface was not usable by blind people. Now, though, I can use it easily. However, current versions of the KDE Plasma desktop do not work well with the Orca screen reader. The following quote is from the release notes for KDE’s latest desktop version:

KDE is an international technology team that creates free and open source software for desktop and portable computing. Among KDE's products are a modern desktop system for Linux and UNIX platforms, comprehensive office productivity and groupware suites and hundreds of software titles in many categories including Internet and web applications, multimedia, entertainment, educational, graphics and software development. KDE software is translated into more than 60 languages and is built with ease of use and modern accessibility principles in mind. KDE's full-featured applications run natively on Linux, BSD, Solaris, Windows and Mac OS X.

-- Source

"Modern accessibility principals," you say? In my opinion, we seem to be talking about different definitions of "accessibility." Yes, there are multiple definitions. One is accessibility in the sense of being able to be accessed, another is the ability to be found, and the ability of being easy to deal with. As stated in the About section of the site, I use accessibility to mean being able to be used completely by blind people. This carries with it the implication that every single function, and all needed visual information, can be conveyed to a blind person in order for it to be accessible. This rules out the "good enough" approach that so many blind people accept as the status quo. Luckily for blind people who would love to use KDE, there is work being done on this issue. Gnu, the project behind much of Linux, also has an accessibility statement, which does seem to be very out of date, as it references flash player and Silverlight, which are no longer in common use, and does not reference Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and other modern technologies which are not open source, but which include assistive technologies. I encourage every adventurous blind person to make themselves available for testing open source software and operating systems; user testing was mentioned by the KDE team as something blind people could do to help. Believe me, having an operating system which is a "joy to use" is a dream of mine.

Gnome, and Mate, accessibility are okay, but they do not come close to the accessibility of Windows and Mac systems. For a good example, if you press Alt + F1 in Gnome, and probably Mate too, you may only hear "window." Advanced users will know to type something in Gnome, or use the Arrow Keys in Mate, but regular users should not have to learn to hunt around due to bad accessibility, and the fact that less technically inclined users use Linux is a testament to blind people’s ingenuity and ability to adapt, rather than the accessibility of the platform.

Open source accessibility is so hit and miss because there are so many standards. There is the GTK framework for building graphical apps, which does have some accessibility support, but developers must label the items in their programs with text. There is the QT framework, which seems to have more poor accessibility support. Basically, developers can do anything they want, which is good for freedom, but often is not great for accessibility. Also, much of the community has not heard of accessibility practices, do not know that blind people use computers, or think that we must use braille interfaces to interact with computers and digital devices. This is a failure on our part, as we do not "get out there" on the Internet enough. With the advent of an accessible Reddit client, this may begin to change. Further work must be done to give blind users an accessible Reddit interface on the web for users to use on computers, not iPhones. However, Github is very accessible, and there is nothing stopping one from submitting issues.

Closed Source Accessibility

"Okay but what about Windows? And Apple? You like Apple, right?" Basically, it’s hard to tell. Software doesn’t write itself, it is written, for now, by people. People can make mistakes, ignore guidelines, or simply not care about accessibility. However, those guidelines do exist, and are usually one standard, like the iOS accessibility standard. This means that companies can develop accessible software easily, and are held accountable by managers to uphold accessibility. But, even the best of accessible companies do not always do the right thing. Apple, for example, has created two services, Apple Arcade and Apple Research. Apple Arcade contains no games which a blind gamer can play without expending much more effort than a sighted gamer. Apple Research contains some questions with answer buttons which are not labeled, or cannot be activated. Does Apple think that blind people do not want to game, or that we don’t care about our hearing, heart, or for women, their reproductive health? Apple has also created Swift Playgrounds, an app for children to learn to code. This is accessible. But what about adults? Shouldn’t blind adults, who are usually technically inclined enough, be given a chance to learn to code? I’ll probably rant about this in a future article.

Microsoft has been on an accessibility journey for a few years now, but even they have a few problems. First, the voices in Windows 10 are poor for screen reading tasks. They pause way too long at the end of clauses and sentences, leading me, at least, to press Down Arrow to move to the next line before the last line was actually done being spoken, all because it paused just long enough to make me think that there was no more text to speak. Microsoft’s XBox Game Pass is great, but I could not find any accessible games in the free rotations. Sure, there’s Killer Instinct that many blind people can enjoy playing, but I found it not only inaccessible, as the menus do not speak, but boring, as the characters all seemed to simply do the same thing. I know that games do not have to be accessible to be fun, but I expect companies who showcase games, like Apple with Arcade, to have at least one accessible game for blind people to enjoy. And I also know that neither Apple nor Microsoft makes these games, but they do choose to advertise them, endorse them even, and it shows that, for Apple Arcade at least, video games are not something which they expect blind people to play. Microsoft is proving them wrong, with the release of Halo with screen reader usability in menus, and the possibility that the new Halo game will be accessible.

Another problem with Microsoft is that not all of their teams are onboard. Like Apple with Arcade and Research, Microsoft has the Rewards team. Their quizzes require one to move items around to reorder answers to get the quiz correct. This may be easy, and perhaps fun, for sighted people, but are simply frustrating for blind people. Other problems include the release of the new Microsoft Edge, which, for most users of screen readers, require that the user turn off UI Automation in order to read some items on the web. Otherwise, if Microsoft’s upcoming foldable phone comes with greatly enhanced accessibility relative to pure Android, and the Narrator screen reader, optimized and made great and enjoyable for a mobile experience, I think that Microsoft could take plenty of market share back from Apple of mobile phone users. They already have most general purpose computer users who are blind, so taking from Apple would be a huge win for them regarding accessibility. But, on that, we’ll have to wait and see how far Microsoft takes their commitment to accessibility. The more cynical side of me says that Microsoft will simply slap Android on a folding phone and release it, because why fight Apple.

Reporting Bugs

So, what can we do to make accessibility better? Just about all open source software, including the stuff making up this blog, is hosted on Github. Just about all companies, of closed source software, claim to want your feedback. So, I recommend giving them any feedback you have. I know that giving feedback to Apple is like throwing $100 bills into the ocean, giving your valuable time to something which may offer no results, and just gives you the robotic "thanks" message. I know that sometimes talking to Microsoft’s accessibility team may seem unproductive, because they lead you from Twitter to one of a number of feedback locations. I know that feedback to open source software projects may take a lot of time and explaining and promoting accessibility to a community which has never considered it before, but it all may help.

For a great, and successful, Github issue regarding accessibility, see this issue on accessibility of Retroarch. You can see that I approached the Retroarch team respectfully, with knowledge of basic accessibility and computer terminology. Note that I gave what should happen, what is happening, and what can be done to fix the problem. As the saying goes, if you do not contribute to a solution to a problem, you are a part of the problem. Blind people will need to remember to give solutions, not just whine about something not working and can’t play Poke A Man like everyone else.

Also, share links to your feedback with other blind people who can vote, thumb up, or comment on it. Remember, if you do comment, please remember that feedback does not net instant results. I’m still waiting on Webcamoid to have an accessible interface, and Adding Active Accessibility into Games for Retroarch, and This Delta issue. But, at least I’ll know when something changes, and I could even Pay for features to be implemented.

This is opposed to the closed source model, where feedback is "passed on to the team," or you are thanked, by your iPhone, for your feedback, but do not hear anything back from developers, and you most definitely can not pay for specific features to be worked on, or donate to projects that you feel deserve it. You must hope and have faith that large companies with more than one billion users cares enough to hear you. For perspective, if every blind person stopped using an iPhone, Apple would not miss many lost sales, compared to the billions of sighted users. However, the engineers who work on iOS accessibility are people too, with deadlines, lives, and feelings, and we should also respect that they are probably tightly restricted in answering feedback, fixing bugs, and creating new, exciting features.

As for me, I will continue to support open source software. I’ll keep using this mac and iPhone because they work the best for me and what I do for work and writing. But, believe me, when something better comes along, I’ll jump ship quickly. As blind people, I feel, we cannot afford to develop brand loyalty. Apple, Microsoft, or Google, I think, could drop accessibility tomorrow, and there we’d be, left in the cold. I highly doubt they will. They may let it lie stagnant, but they probably won’t remove it. I do not write this to scare you in the least, but to make you think about how much control you actually have over what you use, how companies and developers view us, and how we can improve the situation for ourselves. if sighted people notice a bug or want a feature in iOS or Windows, they can gather their tech press and pressure Apple or Microsoft. If we find an accessibility bug, do we have enough clout, or unity, to pressure these companies? Writing feedback, testing software, trying new things, writing guides and fixing documentation, or, if able, translating software into other languages are all things that any blind person can do. I’m not saying that I’m perfect at any of this. I just think that we as a community can grow tremendously if we strike out from our comfortable Windows PC’s, Microsoft Word, audio games, TeamTalk, and old speech synthesizers.

I’ll give some projects you could try out and give feedback on:

- Riot IM, for text and voice chatting in groups, like TeamTalk