Category Archives: assistive technology

An Evening of SXSW Winning Shorts with Tommy Edison

Knowbility is excited to welcome Blind Film Critic, Tommy Edison back for a second year of the audio description contest as a part of AccessU 2016.

“The audio description contest is a lot of fun,” Tommy said. “It’s a thing that a lot of sighted people don’t know about, you know, this whole world of audio description. I mean, that’s the fun of this whole game, right — it’s very educational and it’s a chance for everyone to get to learn. Sighted people get to learn, I get to learn. That’s what makes it so much fun.”

The event will take place at Alamo Drafthouse on May 9th from 6 – 9 PM. Like last year, this year will feature two short films showcased at SXSW. Audience members will get a chance to listen to a professional audio describer provide description for the first film, but we’ll hand over the mic for you to try your hand at describing the second film. Tommy will then select a winner.

“I just judged it on what I heard, who gave the most detail and the person whose description I could follow the best,” Tommy said. “Sometimes people don’t quite describe the right things. For example, a red dress. Unless it’s something like ‘The Case of the Missing Red Dress,’ I probably don’t need to know the color. ”

Tommy’s lifelong love of movies led him to create the Blind Film Critic series on YouTube several years ago. The hilarious and informative series gained immense popularity, and has since transformed into The Tommy Edison Experience, which recently kicked off its third season on Hulu and Amazon Prime.

“The thing that changed for us was, in the comments of the movie reviews, people were very curious about my life, more so than they were about the movies and what I had to say about them,” Tommy said. “So that was the thing that got us to launch the other channel. It’s been quite successful.”

Because the widespread availability of audio description is relatively recent phenomenon, really only gaining traction in the last decade or so, Tommy found himself responding to movies that provided a compelling story and excellent acting above all.

“The movies that I really like are the ones that tell the story, you know, where it’s acted well and the story’s well-written. That’s what I really enjoy,” Tommy said. “For example: Goodfellas, one of my favorite movies of all time. I just love that movie, it’s just great — I don’t really think it needs audio description. I’m convinced that anybody could enjoy that movie just by listening to it, I really do. And there are others; Clerks is another that I just don’t think needs audio description. You could just put that on and listen to it and have a great time and take the ride like everybody else.”

Naturally, compelling acting became a crucial aspect of making a listenable film. Tommy has his favorites.

“My favorite actor of all time is the great Dustin Hoffman and I’ll tell you why,” Tommy said. “When you see Bobby DeNiro in stuff: There’s DeNiro. But when you’re watching Rainman with Dustin Hoffman — that’s not Dustin Hoffman, that’s Rainman. That’s how good he is. That’s how strong he is. That’s how transformative he is. And I really like that, when somebody can make me forget who the actor is. It’s incredible.”

Still, when audio description began to gain traction, it was a game changer.

“My first experience with audio description was The Matrix and that’s a movie I put on 100 times and was like ‘I don’t know, I’m lost,’” Tommy said. “But on audio description, it became the awesome movie that everybody wanted me to see.”

Knowing how to bring a film to life through description is an artform unto itself. That’s why Knowbility is equally pleased to be welcoming back April Sullivan of VSA Texas, the state organization on arts and disability, as the in-house audio descriptor.

“It was really fun to have people do it and try it out,” April said. “Some of them were good at it and some of them weren’t; it takes practice.I think just try and have fun with it because it’s scary at first if you’ve never done it before. If you just try it, even if you mess up completely, at least that’s the first step.”

After taking that initial step, you may find yourself unable to stop providing audio description to every movie you see.

“When I started doing it, every time I saw a movie I just started describing it in my head. I just couldn’t help it,” April said. “It changes the way your mind works in just paying attention to everything you’re seeing because everything’s so visual for us who see that we don’t even pay attention to all the things we’re seeing all the time. There’s so many things that come and go out of our sight and we register them, but don’t even realize it. And so when you have to look at it and break it down and go okay, ‘This is the most important thing that I have to say.’”

That shift in perspective is one of the things April values most about engaging with the world of audio description and the benefits don’t stop there.

“It’s really fun and if folks want to expand their audiences to people who are blind or visually impaired, they need to know what’s out there that they can do to add to it,” April said. “Then  they can start changing their mindset and thinking about what’s happening visually that not everybody’s getting.”  

Think you’re ready to try your hand at audio description? You can purchase tickets and find further event information on the Eventbrite website. While you’re at it, be sure to check out Tommy’s site where you can find all of his past videos and series.

Disability is Not a Problem; it is Part of Who You Are.

Article by Patricia Walsh, Principal at Blind Ambition Speaking and USA Para National Olympic-Distance Triathlon Champion 


When I was growing up, the future for persons with disabilities did not seem bright to me.  I was coached in the process for applying for SSDI.  I believed to collect social security was my ceiling with regard to my potential for inclusion.  As I have lived to see the tremendous change brought on by accessible technology I’m thrilled to have experienced firsthand the shattering of a ceiling of human potential.  Working and contributing is more than a pathway to income, it is a yellow brick road to quality of life, self-worth, and a sense of achievement.  Organizations such as Knowbility and similar organizations like the Blind Institute of Technology are driving the cultural changes to create new opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

Mike Hess is the founder of the Blind Institute for Technology based out of Denver, CO.  This nonprofit organization is dedicated to increasing representation of persons with blindness in the workforce particularly in the fields of science, math, engineering, and technology.  Hess believes that his success in the corporate world was not in spite of his blindness but actually attributed to his blindness.  He believes his listening skills, problem solving, and resourcefulness made him an invaluable contributor in corporate America.

Hess started BIT in order to be part of the solution.  They offer training for persons with blindness in tech-skills.  They also interface with corporations to convey that persons with blindness can be an invaluable peace for any solution.  BIT is a similar program to Knowbility’s Access works program.  Access Works has a reach beyond blindness but similar in its approach.  The premise being that the disability is not a problem it is an asset.  In a world that values diversity and creative solution there is now access to a previously untapped pool of talented skills individuals.

Congratulations to BIT and Mike Hess for building on a change in perspective that may result in improved quality of life for individuals with blindness in the Colorado region.  For more information regarding Bit please read here:

Written Testimony to the US Access Board from the California Council of Citizens with Low Vision

Prepared by Wayne E. Dick, PhD



The California Council of Citizens with Low Vision finds the Access Board’s decision to include WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA (henceforth WCAG) by reference is admirable to harmonize standards, but inconsistent with the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. By applying 1194.22(d) from the current 508, removing the author’s visual style, readers with low vision could achieve limitless enlargement with no need to scroll horizontally on mainstream browsers. The new rules drop this capability without suitable replacement. This is a major loss to citizens with low vision. Our Council cannot see how text enlargement without word wrapping can be considered reasonable accommodation in 2015, the age of responsive Information Communication Technology (ICT).


On behalf of the California Council of Citizens with Low Vision, I would like to thank the Access Board for inviting written comment.

My name is Wayne Dick. As a person with congenital low vision and as a member of the Council, I am writing to register my and our concerns with those rules of the Section 508 refresh that are intended to address our needs. From the perspective of our Council, they do not.

We believe that as stated, the new 508 rules cannot translate to accommodations that are reasonable in the sense of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. We are respectfully asking the Access Board to strengthen the rules relating to low vision. In particular we would like the Board to modify rules based on the WCAG 2.0 Guideline 1.4 Level A and AA Success Criteria that are intended to address the accessibility needs of people with low vision. We would also like the Board to extend the rules based on WCAG Guideline 1.3 so that the concept of flexible data is interpreted to include visual presentations of data that support effective reading of text.

We begin with a definition of support for reasonable accommodation for reading documents delivered through Information Communication Technology (ICT).

Reasonable Accommodation Support

An Information Communication Technology document supports reasonable accommodation for visual reading whenever the user can transform the document with software so that it can be read from a distance that supports healthy posture with self reported effectiveness of end users. Required horizontal scrolling to obtain text enlargement is not a reasonable accommodation.

This definition is based on 5 principles:

  1. Flexible Data: ICT is not paper. The visual presentation of modern ICT can be modified extensively to support reading needs. Given this flexibility, horizontal scrolling is never a necessity.
  2. Programmatic Determinism: Users can use software to obtain the transformations of visual presentation needed to support their individual reading needs.
  3. Reading Enabled: Documents can be given a visual presentation that can be read. The focus is on visual readability not just visual perceptibility.
  4. Comfortable Distance: Sixteen inches is the average distance most people use to read in comfort, but this can vary. ThePsychophisics of Reading (Legge, 2007) defines low vision for reading to be: The inability to read news print from a distance of 16 inches (40 centimeters) with full correction. All readers need sufficient size to support reading with healthy posture.
  5. User Centered: Reading effectiveness can be determined by the end users, the readers. Users are not limited to preset choices determined by decisions of people who cannot know their individual visual needs.


Consider reading professional material on a smart phone. Take the Affordable Care Act as an example(PDF and HTML). Both of these files appear on US Government sites. As a person with low vision I keep a gallery of visual aids and assistive technologies. I will describe the reading experience with each:

Unreasonable Accommodation

  • Screen Magnification using the PDF version. To obtain a perceivable reading size one must enlarge to the size where the width of lines exceeds the width of the view port. This requires horizontal scrolling which among many problems, increases the cognitive load required to read. It is unlikely any but the most determined reader could finish this long and complex document with this accommodation.
  • Screen Magnification with the HTML format. Most normal readers can read this on a cell phone. However, the size is well below 9 point, the optimal reading size for normal readers. The reader will probably attempt to read the smaller print, but will be forced to quit because the print is too small to prevent fatigue.
  • Use reading glasses with (PDF). My reading glasses enlarge 700%. That is enough to read, but I have to hold my device to my nose. My posture is bad. I could not finish the law that way.
  • Using telescopic glasses with (PDF). My telescope glasses give me a 5x pop. That is good, and I don’t have to hold the book so close. With this device my visual field is smaller and I have a harder time going from line to line. Again, I could not finish the text.

Note that none of these examples use the programmatically deterministic nature of the media being used. The ICT documents are being treated like they are paper.

Reasonable Accommodation Support

  • With text only enlargement in a single column format that supports word wrapping the HTML Version works very well. With Firefox on a laptop, I can easily enlarge to 48 point.
  • Apply 1194.22(d) to the HTML document. First, strip the author’s style. This puts the document in a one column format that can be enlarged without limit in Firefox on a laptop. Better yet, some browsers like IE, Safari, Opera and Firefox support user style sheets. In these browsers the document could be restyled to the exact needs of the user.

Support of Reasonable Accommodation for Reading can be implemented using the following functional requirements:

Functional Requirement

Document Structure Must Support

  1. User Choice of column format, single column being essential
  2. Freedom from horizontal scrolling at all font sizes
  3. Ability to read visually from a comfortable distance with self reported effectiveness.

Users Must Be Able To Change Text Style

  1. Spacing (letter, word and line)
  2. Font (size, weight, style, family) including the ability to substitute new font values for regions of type that are hard to read because of the author’s choices.
  3. Color (fore and back)
  4. Visual Guides – borders, level indicators
  5. Width of reading area – margins, column width

Note that choice of color gives choice of contrast because contrast is functionally determined by fore and back color.


I am a professor emeritus of computer science. I received my PhD in Mathematics with my central retina damage in 1980 from the University of California, San Diego. It was not easy. Inflexible reading material and horizontal scrolling have been the bane of my professional career. I have probably read as much professional content using horizontal scrolling as anyone in the world.

Section 508 and the data flexibility enabled by subsection 1194.22(d) enabled me to read more professional content between 2000 and 2010 than I did in the previous 30 years. The ability to enlarge without limit and word wrap was the key to my new reading ability. I also took advantage of my own style sheets to adjust the visual environment to my exact needs. While normal readers with low vision cannot write style sheets, there are plenty of programmers like me who can prepare customizations for them. That is, if we are still permitted access to visual style after the 508 Refresh passes. In its current form the 508 Refresh sanctions ICT documents that do not permit the necessary level of access. When HTML 5 developers start embedding text in documents in open web pages that do not use the document object model, the problem will become acute.

At my university CSU Long Beach we currently have 10 students with low vision enrolled with our Disabled Student Services. There should be close to 100 students enrolled at our campus of 35,000 (Vitale, Cotch, Sperduto, 2010). Are we failing to attract students to the Disabled Student’s Office or is our campus dramatically under represented? If the answer is under representation then the representation rate of people with low vision would be lower than that of any ethnic minority on campus. We do not know the answer. To my knowledge, in my 30 years teaching in the computer science undergraduate and graduate programs at Cal. State Long Beach we had one student with low vision who graduated. While this information is anecdotal it is also cautionary.

In either case, the importance of adopting ICT that supports reasonable accommodation is clear. If students with low vision are just failing to enroll with Disabled Student Services, then ICT documents that support reasonable accommodation and cover university reading requirements will surely help them succeed in their stealthy journey through college. If students with low vision are under represented then ICT that supports reasonable accommodation will increase the number of students that meet college entrance requirements.

One last observation on need, our one student to finish a Computer Science program with low vision, eventually got an MS in Computer Science. He is now a lead technical manager at Dreamworks. I taught more than 2000 students in my career. He was one of the most brilliant. Maybe success in college with low vision just requires exceptional talent at this time.

The Significance of 508-1194.22(d)

Paragraph 1194.22(d) states, “Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.”

Whenever a page satisfies 1194.22(d) and does not include layout tables, the style sheet can be removed, the page becomes a one column format, and the text can be enlarged without limit and no horizontal scrolling is required. Using the access I get from 1194.22(d) I could enlarge text 400% to 500% without horizontal scrolling. In my case that capability has meant the difference between reading fluently and a consistently painful struggle to read.

The only Level AA success criterion of WCAG that refers to text enlargement is WCAG SC 1.4.4, but SC 1.4.4 allows horizontal scrolling and also restricts enlargement to 200%, an unacceptably small factor. Given that the 508 Refresh includes WCAG Level AA through reference, this means that a key accommodation enabled by the old 1194.22(d) is nullified and is replaced by an ineffective success criterion.

Horizontal scrolling has been labeled as a web design error (Cappel & Huang, 2007), and usability professionals have strongly discouraged web developers to incorporate horizontal scrolling within their page simply because users with normal vision will not make the effort to move the page to see all content (Johnson, 2000; Nielsen, 2005; Sherwin, 2014). How can we call horizontal scrolling a reasonable accommodation when computer users with normal vision prefer to avoid it? For normal readeres horizontal scrolling is a usability annoyance, but when you must encounter this annoyance to read everything, the annoyance becomes a barrier to reading. It prevents equal access. (Note: Horizontal scrolling is not the horizontal swiping used on mobile and other touch devices. Swiping does not cut off part of the viewable page.).

In the United States a person must have visual acuity worse than 20/60 to be classified as having low vision. That means to perceive letters at 20 feet a person who is classified with low vision in the US can not perceive letters a normal person can see at 60 feet.  This means by US standards of low vision, a person with low vision must have letters enlarged by more than threefold (300%+) in order to perceive them from the same distance a normal person perceives them. For example, a person with low vision must have newsprint enlarged more than 300% in order to read it from 16 inches, a comfortable distance. The ceiling of 200% enlargement as recommended by WCAG does not seem to be oriented to the needs of people with low vision in the US. It is unreasonable.

When I read long paper documents that have been enlarged 200%, I use my 2.5x magnifier. Any reader with low vision will find some way to close the reading distance to a point to simulate at least 300% enlargement.

A natural question to ask is why 200% is suggested by many sources recommending font size for low vision. The answer is quite simple, 200% is an upper bound for print size recommended for paper, hard copy (Council of Citizens with Low Vision, 2011). When a document is on paper the number of pages required is approximately the square of the enlargement factor. Thus a 200% enlargement will require four times the pages; 300% will require nine times the pages, and 500% will require 25 times the pages. For paper, 200% is a ceiling that avoids undue burden for the publisher.

Electronic documents are broadcast media. That means the number of pages a user requires to read a document has no impact on the cost of the dissemination. We know that conformance to 1194.22(d) enables unlimited enlargement without word wrapping. The accommodation is reasonable and many have satisfied it without undue burden.

If the Guideline 1.3 of WCAG interpreted flexible data to mean visually flexible as well as capable of being transformed to audio, 1194.22(d) would be replaced and improved.  Unfortunately the WCAG Working Group is certain that they never meant visual flexibility to be an interpretation of Guideline 1.3. As far as the WCAG Working Group is concerned screen magnification is all the accessibility support that is needed by people with low vision who require 200% enlargement or more. To them, reading with horizontal scrolling is reasonable for people with a low vision disability.

The California Council of Citizens with low vision strongly advise 1194.22(d) be replaced by a stronger recommendation of user access to visual presentation. At the minimum this should support very large enlargement with word wrapping. The functional requirements regarding user choice of visual style listed above would go far in this direction. Of course, 1194.22(d) breaks down for documents that use layout tables, so the functional rules given here would close that gap while continuing the essential functionality of 1194.22(d).

The Council also recommends that the Access Board extends 1194.22(d) by allowing access to the full range of visual style modifications for text that are currently available to document authors. In our functional requirements we highlight the most important of these factors. Text includes many visual conventions that express meaning. Users with low vision should have access to these presentational aspects of text and be able to change them to formats that support their reading needs.

Specifically, the Board should study Guideline 1.3 of the WCAG document, and write a rule that ensures that the data flexibility stated in the success criteria 1.3.1 and 1.3.2 applies to the visual semantics of text as well as the semantics of block structures. The new rules should require that all meaning conveyed in the visual formatting of text should be programmatically determined, an extension of the current WCAG interpretation of success criteria 1.3.1. Similarly, all sequential relationships expressed by textual formatting must be programmatically determined. This is the cleanest possible way to enable writing assistive technology for reasonable accommodation of low vision.

Estimated Cost

The primary cost to developers will be to organize documents structurally so that multiple column and single column modes are available to users, and so that horizontal scrolling is never an issue at any size. This is the equivalent to the normal cost developers face whenever they convert to WCAG conformance. There is an initial cost followed by a change in development practice that often improves production efficiency. The cost effectiveness of this development methodology is well known.

With regard to restructuring the page format to accommodate the reduced content capacity caused by large type, the cost effectiveness has been proven with responsive web design (Marcotte, 2010). This technique is used to restructure pages to cope with the reduced content capacity of mobile devices caused by small screens.

Counting EM Boxes: an alternative to enlargement factors

When SC 1.4.4 recommends 200% enlargement the question always is: “200% of what?” Just the units are a problem, points, pixels? Given the variety of resolutions and screen sizes available and font-size scales what is needed is a way to specify a maximum practical character size for any view port without referencing resolution or font size units. One way is to set a character count per line.

Example: Size by Character Count Table

The table below gives some standard monitor sizes with character counts for the long side. The entries in the boxes represent the point sizes of the em boxes. These are squares that hold the capital M. Their size represents the point size supported on that screen with that character count.

Character Count Table

Chars → Size↓ 12ch 15ch 18ch 21ch
8″ 42pt 33pt 27pt 23pt
13″ 67pt 54pt 45pt 38pt
23″ 119pt 95pt 79pt 68pt
32″ 166pt 133pt 110pt 95pt

Technical Details

Here is how it works. Each monitor is given a size x that is its length across the diagonal in inches. The length of the longest side is about L= (0.86)(x) inches where x is the size of the monitor. If there are n characters along the long side then each character is L/n inches long or P=(72)(L/n) points long. To find the number of lines on the short side just multiply (n)(0.58) and truncate the fraction. Each square in this array of squares has side measure of P. Each of these is an em box, designed to hold a letter capital M. They represent the point size of the letters that the screen will hold. Note: Most screens are 30/60/90 triangles approximately; cos(30)=0.86 and tan(30)=0.58.

Application to Low Vision

Just as responsive design takes into account screen size and resolution and sets thresholds that change presentation, a disability oriented responsive design should be able to set thresholds based on numbers of characters per line. Cases like 12, 15, 20, 30 and 40 characters per line should be supported. For sufficient enlargement many users will have to choose their screen size. However, one can get very good enlargement on an iPad, better enlargement on a 13 inch laptop, and superior enlargement on a 23 inch desktop monitor.


The California Council for Citizens with Low Vision strongly advise the Access Board to change their rules to meet the needs of people with low vision. The rules in the 508 Refresh do not address these needs and even take away access that was given in the current 508. As stated we cannot see how reasonable accommodation for reading with low vision can be achieved given the rules that are included by reference from WCAG.

Our Council applauds the attempt to harmonize Section 508 with international standards, but the Access Board is a creation of Section 502 of the Rehabilitation Act, a civil rights law. Conformance to United States civil rights law is the Board’s primary responsibility. Citizens with low vision are a protected class and need equal access to government. The low vision rules included by reference from WCAG will not give equal access to government documents. This creates a barrier to, “equal protection of the laws,” (United States, 1868) caused by an inability to read laws and regulations based on law. To protect the civil rights of US citizens with low vision the Access Board needs to exceed the WCAG success criteria that relate to low vision.

We encourage the Board to adopt the, functional rules we proposed above. They provide a more stable foundation for reasonable accommodation than the referenced rules from WCAG. They are a technology independent replacement for 1194.22(d) that give all the visual flexibility needed for our population to have visual access to documents.


  1. Cappel, J. J., & Huang, Z. (2007). A usability analysis of company websites. The Journal of Computer Information Systems, 48(1), 117-123. Retrieved from
  2. Council of Citizens with Low Vision International (2011),  Best Practices and Guidelines for Large Print Documents used by the Low Vision Community, Retrieved from
  3. Johnson, J. (2000). GUI Bloopers: Don’ts and dos for software developers and web designers. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.
  4. Legge, G. E. (2007) Psychophysics of Reading in Normal and Low Vision. Lawrence Elbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ
  5. Marcotte, E. (2010). Responsive Web Design. A List Apart, 306. Retrieved from
  6. Nielsen, J. (2005). Scrolling and scrollbars. Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox. Retrieved from
  7. Sherwin, K. (2014). Beware horizontal scrolling and mimicking swipe on desktop. Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox. Retrieved from
  8. Vitale S.,  Cotch M. F., Sperduto R. D. (2010). Prevalence of Visual Impairment in the United States. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol 295, No. 18, Retrieved from
  9. United States (1868). Constitution AMENDMENT XIV Passed by Congress June 13, 1866. Ratified July 9, 1868.Retrieved from

Accessible Software Is Essential To Learning

A personal Story by Sabra Ewing

For many students, accessible software is essential to learning. This is especially true for those of us who rely on assistive technology. Unfortunately, despite the wealth of publicly available information about accessibility, and a host of free resources, student and educator ignorance about accessibility requirements in education continues to create unnecessary barriers for students with disabilities. Here’s a personal account that I hope will illustrate the need for increased professional development in accessible learning.

I didn’t think I would enjoy my required computer science course when I arrived there on the first day of my freshmen year of high school. We were supposed to start using a program called JCreater, which the technology personnel in my school district were unable to make usable by a screen reader. Believing this to be a great stroke of luck, I didn’t mind when my vision teacher told me that the principal would waive the requirement for me and that I would take a gym class instead. Had I just done a bit of research, I might have learned about a free accessible alternative to JCreater that would have allowed me to easily work alongside my peers, but I didn’t know enough about computer science to know what to look for. In any case, according to Newsweek and World Report, I was either attending the number 1 or number 2 public high schools in the nation depending on the year. I assumed that, if the knowledge of the teachers there, coupled with that of my blindness-specific instructors couldn’t devise a way for me to fulfill the requirement, then nothing could. I lived in ignorance for the remainder of my freshman year, thinking that, without a doubt, I had gotten the better end of the Computer Science deal than my classmates.

During my sophomore year, I began to feel slightly apprehensive about the whole affair. I learned that, in addition to the first required class, I was being denied access to three subsequent optional courses. One was an advanced placement course, another was dual credit. In all, this equated to four classes that could have gotten me more ranking points. But I pushed these thoughts out of my mind. Ranking points didn’t matter to me, I told myself. Neither did the fact that our school had a computer science team and a robotics team. It was true that both teams had many of the same members, and that I had taken to eating lunch near them each day, but that was only because they weren’t too loud, not because I had any interest in what they were doing.

By junior year, I broke down and openly admitted that my interest in Computer Science was increasing. But there would be no point in pursuing it. The fact remained…I had not touched a computer during the two weeks I had been in the computer science class. I had never tried programming for myself. How could I really be sure whether or not I could do it as a blind person?

By the time I became a senior in high school, not knowing had become too much to bear. So near the beginning of the year, when we had a three day weekend, I began doing some research into the matter. By this time, I had picked up on the fact that there are lots of programming languages and that my peers had been studying a language called Java, so I decided to see if I could do the same. That night, I spend twelve hours installing software and learning to use command line as well as the basics of the Java programming language. Ever since I compiled my first application depicting a diagonal line, I knew that computer science was for me. I never considered asking to join the computer science or robotics team because I, along with the other students in my small school, was fully aware that I lacked the necessary skill to do so. However, I did ask the Computer Science teacher why I couldn’t have taken the series of courses by using different software to debug and compile my programs. The terse response was that other software packages didn’t effectively color code various information and that in order to be successful in the class, I would surely need one-on-one assistance the school couldn’t provide. After recovering from my shock that this intellectually developed person couldn’t understand that color coding has no bearing on the experience of a totally blind programmer, I began to feel angry and hurt. This difficult situation and others like it could have been avoided through education and increased social awareness for me and the others at my school.

This is an example of how despite the existence of accessible software, I still didn’t have access to all of the same educational opportunities as my peers. Accessible materials are great, and they definitely constitute a big step forward, but those materials are essentially useless in the hands of un-knowledgeable students and educators. In this case, my teacher’s lack of knowledge meant that I missed out on a series of courses and several extracurricular activities I could have really enjoyed. Had I not wanted to find out the truth for myself, I might not today be majoring in computer information systems and thinking of switching my major to computer science. Worse, my ignorance of the software available to me meant that I inadvertently sent the message to my peers that blind people can never be their full academic counterparts. Today, schools don’t find it acceptable to deny access based on race, gender, and religion. Let’s make sure schools also display knowledge and sensitivity toward students protected under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Adobe and NVDA Partnership Improves Accessibility

As Production Manager for the AccessWorks team here at Knowbility, my team and I have spent the past 3 years remediating PDFs and other documents to ensure accessibility.  One of the main issues we face is the inability to reliably test documents using open source screen-readers.  As open source screen-readers like NVDA become more main-stream we believe it is becoming more important than ever to test with them.

Over the past several years we have tried using a number of screen-readers to test documents including JAWS, NVDA, System Access To Go, and Apple’s VoiceOver. While JAWS is our primary testing option, the licensing cost makes it difficult for many small organizations and individuals creating accessible content to adopt JAWS as a primary testing tool for their PDFs.

The next best option for content creators with limited budgets is to use NVDA. While NVDA has many similar functions and hot keys as JAWS, there are still some areas for improvement such as navigating tables in PDF.  In JAWS you can use the “ctrl+alt+arrow” keys to navigate within a table and ensure the proper column and or row headers are read.  In NVDA this is currently not possible.  The only option is to navigate to a table using “T” and then use the arrow keys to navigate within the table without reading column or row headers. An abbreviated list of NVDA hot keys can be found on the WebAIM website.

Collaboration between Adobe and NV Access (the creators of NVDA) will help ensure document testing is complete and accurate when using this open source screen-reader.  It is my hope that this collaboration will not only make NVDA more compatible with accessibility features of Adobe PDF files, but will also help Adobe to further increase the accessibility of the Portable Document Format with the upcoming PDF/UA standard (ISO 14289).

Adobe’s Statement of Support for Open Source Assistive Technology