On April 29, 2005, the Apple Computer company launched the fourth generation of OS X or 10. Each of the versions of OSX was named after a cat and thus it was that version four was known as Tiger. With the launch of Tiger, Apple signaled the beginning of a new era in access technology. It will probably take a while for the full effect of the revolution to be felt but we, as blind computer users, are clearly in a place we have never been before.
You see, with the release of Tiger, Apple included a suite of disability access programs as a part of its operating system which means that a blind person can walk into a Mac store and buy a computer that is accessible out of the box. There is a magnification program that will make using the Mac easier for those with low vision but the real blockbuster news is that there is a program called Voiceover, which is shipped with every Tiger Mac. This is a full-fledged screen reader which certainly gives blind people access to word processing, e-mail, Internet browsing, music storage, and chess. In addition, you can voice chat, send instant messages, read PDF files, and scan. There are actually many other things and programs that can probably be accessed, but this is a fairly impressive list.
Apple is to be commended for making sure that Voiceover is a fairly robust and mature product at release time. As with the Windows operating system, most of the products that are used on Macs are developed by third- party companies that are not directly affiliated with Apple. Many of these are not currently accessible. Apple is taking a proactive stance by making programming guidelines available to such companies and, with luck, more and more content will soon be fully usable. The interface appears sensible and Apple is again to be commended for its use of many blind people and a public list to beta-test the Voiceover software.
The arrival of another screen reader on the scene is not, by itself, such a big deal. In fact, the Mac operating system is notorious for its use of graphics and many people who are blind have shied away from having much to do with Macs for that reason. There had been a screen reader for the Mac, Outspoken, which ceased to be available a little more than a year ago. It was never upgraded so it could work with OS 10. So, essentially, those diehard Mac users who are blind were forced until now to stay an operating system behind with a product that was only ever mediocre at best.
What is significant about the release of Tiger and Voiceover is an economic reality. A blind person can now walk into an Apple store and get a Mac Mini and a keyboard for well under $600. For this outlay, the blind person will not only get a computer with 20 software voices built in, but he will not need to spend any more money on a screen reader. Most Windows users would have to find an additional $1,000 to purchase a screen reader.
Imagine this. Every new Mac in every office, every classroom and every computer lab and every library is accessible. What will this mean for education and employment? Is the training community ready for the influx of requests for training on the Mac that will undoubtedly come? How will Microsoft react now that accessibility is built into computers by its chief rival? Will Windows become the platform of those who have money? Will the Mac become the computer of choice for poor people who simply cannot afford more? These are tough questions which only time will answer. What it is important to recognize for now is that, for the first time, blind people have the chance to buy a computer at the same price and in the same place that sighted people buy theirs. Families do not have to buy separate computers for their blind children.
Neither I nor anyone else knows what the future of the Mac and blind people is likely to be. Many are entrenched Windows users who will not want to learn a new system. However, many blind people for whom a computer was just a distant dream on the horizon will, for the first time, be able to look at the prospect of acquiring the freedom and productivity a computer brings at a price they may be able to afford. Whatever the future holds, April 29, 2005 was a pretty significant day in the lives of blind people. Only time will show us just how much it means!
Bruce Bailey has pulled a number of Voiceover and Apple resources onto one web page. The address is http://home.adelphia.net/~bmss/vo/.
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