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Visually Impaired User Weighs In on Assistive Technology Debate

Why a Windows-Only Argument Is A Bad Idea

  • January 5, 2006
  • By Scott Seder

A situation has developed that has caught my eye in recent months and has made me realize that I could no longer keep silent concerning several things troubling me. I am visually impaired and a PC user, and I cannot see well enough to work with a PC without using JAWS for Windows and MAGIC for Windows Assistive Technology Software.

I have read recent articles vilifying Peter Quinn, CIO of the ITD of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who wishes to make all Commonwealth documents accessible to all. But are those who tout JAWS for Windows to defend the rights of the visually impaired community speaking because they use this system every day for employment, or do they have some other hidden agenda?

In the case of use of Assistive Technology in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it would seem that fiscally responsible politicians would want to provide the best solution for their respective constituents at the best price. But it appears that in all the arguments about the OpenDocument file format versus Microsoft's OpenXML file format and accessibility to the visually impaired community that something has been missed.

The sighted community, in its attempt to be magnanimous to the non-sighted and fill our needs, has completely ignored the issue at hand. Does the system that has been selected meet the needs of the community toward which it is directed? Or is there something else that could be designed that would work more effectively and at a lower price for the consumer or taxpayer? According to the debate and its conclusion we, as visually impaired people, may never know what "could be better done to meet our needs."

To illustrate my concerns, I was perplexed several months ago by problems I was having with my PC. First, it would crash multiple times in everyday use. I frequently found it necessary to restart Magic or JAWS--or both--or reboot my Windows XP PC because of an instability in my system. Even following a fresh re-installation of all software, this application suite refuses to provide an acceptable level of system stability.

The crashes are devastating because they cause me to lose vital files I had created and have to start work over again after having nearly completed it. This costs me precious time that I could otherwise spend elsewhere. The files should have been saved because I periodically save my work out of habit, but Microsoft products do not for some reason seem to work this way no matter what one tries.

Secondly, my PC often begins to run slowly and the Assistive Technology (AT) programs will not function correctly. (i.e., settings I had enabled would fail to function or would change unexpectedly). This results in the necessity to frequently reboot the computer--wasting more precious time.

Finally, my system gets bogged down apparently with too much running in the background--no matter what function I disable. I have a 2.4-gHz P4 processor and 512 Mb of RAM, so things should run efficiently. I have Windows XP Home Edition because that is what my state government's Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired had provided for my employment needs. (I would have preferred XP Professional since it was purported to run more efficiently.)

This recurring series of time-wasting problems caused me to call a friend who is experienced in technical matters in programming and in support for MS Windows. He came out to look at my problem. After "scrubbing" clean my hard disk, installing Microsoft XP Professional, and reinstalling all my software we thought everything would be fine. But this was not the case at all. On the contrary, in fact. Apparently my AT software was only licensed for Windows XP Home Edition, and I would have to spend another $200 in order to license it for XP Professional. Like most other people I know I do not just have $200 lying around waiting to be spent on AT (or any other software). So we reinstalled Windows XP Home Edition and started over.

The AT software has a very complicated system of registration and activation. If one does not go exactly through their several steps then you can't run their software. Apparently they are extremely afraid of people using their software illegally. At the prices charged for AT software it is no surprise that anyone might attempt to use it in violation of the software licensing terms.

The above narrative illustrates the point that for people who depend upon this type of AT to communicate at work such as me, the cost is often too high. The industry in my opinion is utterly too dependent upon state funding rather than producing competitively priced marketable software.

The system works this way:

  • The state government, subsidized by the federal government, pays exorbitant amounts of money for products that assist the disabled community.
  • The AT software companies depend completely on the states and not the private sector for their consumer base--a dangerous cycle to say the least.
  • The consumer gets the product but very seldom realizes how much it costs. For example, a watch that I own from one AT company would cost the state over $100 but through a private-sector company cost me less than $20 + shipping. In other words, prices are out of range of most visually impaired people. The JAWS screen reader which I use cost the state $1295 and the screen magnification system, MAGIC, which I also use cost $210. Another common screen enhancement package called Windows-Eyes costs $1054. These prices are too high for the ordinary visually impaired consumer, placing us in the realm of dependence upon "big business" or government; or forcing us to take out a loan, thus incurring more debt to be paid off later.

The overall cost the state incurred giving me my entire system was close to $15,000! This includes approximately $5,000 for my entire PC system of software and hardware, a PDA costing close to $6,000 and a closed-circuit reading system that cost close to $4,000. If someone set out to provide these products through the private sector they would incur possibly half this cost. All AT is expensive--not merely the software. Furthermore, the operating systems are expensive. The Windows-based system noted above includes all the software necessary to operate the computer system.

"But," you might ask, "Can't you just use the integrated software that comes with Windows XP or some other operating systems?" The answer is, in the case of Microsoft, a most emphatic "NO!" The integrated platform software for Windows XP is problematic at best. None of the technologies work in all applications (text-to-speech ceases to work altogether in some cases without warning). Screen enhancement works only in some cases and not for the whole screen and not for all menus.

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