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Visually Impaired User Weighs In on Assistive Technology Debate - page 2

Why a Windows-Only Argument Is A Bad Idea

  • January 5, 2006
  • By Scott Seder

Which leaves me to try other operating systems. A local Linux user group gave me a new PC with SUSE Linux 9.3 Professional preinstalled. They did their best to help me to configure the system so I could use it. From what I could see, the KDE desktop has the best overall usability, but is lacking in AT support that I need. As a last resort, the technician--who did his best to help me--was forced to configure the GNOME desktop, which I find just usable.

It took me less than an hour to get used to OpenOffice--a remarkable office application to say the least. Sadly, the version of OpenOffice on my Linux system does not inter-operate well with the AT functionality in the GNOME desktop.

I have used the Linux system for over 15 months without a single crash that has resulted in data loss. Occasionally the sound card appears to get hung up, requiring the system to be restarted, but this has never been fatal to my data; quite a contrast compared with my Windows system!

I do not want to sound off in any critical manner over Linux--I like it, but it still has some distance to go before it will be generally acceptable to the visually impaired non-technical user. To make matters worse, I have searched for state-employed AT professional teachers who can assist me with Linux and have found not a single one. Moreover, the few teachers I spoke with were openly hostile concerning any alternative to Windows. This does not make sense to me.

The only OS on which the built-in AT that truly works is OS X. Most people in the visually impaired community are relatively unfamiliar with Apple and its respective applications, so "unfamiliarity breeds indifference and even hostility." So we are stuck going back to a high-cost, unstable, Windows-based software environment.

This is not just a matter of technological preference. There are real costs at stake, too. For instance, I had been a Mac user for several years and suggested that the state consider buying me an improved system. But they categorically refused to do so. They cited that Mac did not have programs like JAWS available, so it was not a good choice. But Mac does have integrated AT software built into its operating system already. The approximate costs would have been as follows:

PC System $4,500
Mac System $2,500

It is possible, perhaps, that the costs might be even lower if a Linux-based system had an acceptable AT platform/system created for it. The Open Source applications and operating systems are typically much less expensive than those of its proprietary competitors. This would be a huge savings for state and private funders of AT. (Even a shift to a Mac-based AT system would be a step in the right direction.)

What I believe most consumers are looking for is affordable AT that meets our work needs. This means software that is inexpensive, yet functions without crashing, freezing up, or slowing the performance of our computers. Magnification software that enhances the whole screen, not just the document, but the menus and task bars as well. Screen readers that identify what the user wants identified. All of this must be fully compatible with all available applications for the best readability and functionality.

Massachusetts is a prime example of what happens when government tries to overstep its ability to "help protect" the rights of individuals. In doing this, the Commonwealth's politicians have done the opposite of what they nobly set out to do. They have actually curtailed the rights of the visually impaired community to get the best product at the least expensive cost.

What we need is free development of software that will truly assist us in our work functions. Should the voting taxpayers of Massachusetts be stuck paying for software that could be developed for a fraction of the cost? This is what the politicians of that state should ask themselves before they decide on the fate of OpenDocument. The visually impaired and blind community deserve the best software that can be developed, but not at such an expense to force us to depend completely upon the state or financial community for assistance in buying and using this technology.

What we as taxpayers first of all need is politicians who will look out for their constituents and not only for campaign contributions that will get them elected to "higher" offices, especially from big contributors like Microsoft.

Microsoft clearly wants to eliminate all competition in the office software market. This is to be expected; it has been their hallmark for many years. However, we should question the validity of their continued, taxpayer funded, market dominance. The socialistic protection they have been afforded has not delivered stable and dependable PCs--not for the general user, and certainly not for the visually impaired user base. Linux is clearly a superior operating system, despite the lack of the same restrictive and protective forces in the marketplace.

Why can't government and corporate users get the idea that other vendors would like to and can offer a potentially more useful and superior office productivity solution? Why must so many in government and business coerce the use of inferior systems? What is wrong with a free and open market? Surely, we would all be better off with greater choice and more competition.

Finally, what we as taxpayers and consumers need is someone to look at everyone as individual consumers, to serve us and our needs, and to compete for our business so that prices come down to an affordable level. That is, after all, how our free enterprise system works. It would do us well to remember that those who would stifle competition are "new-age communists" (Bill Gates).

If someone were to ask my opinion of what the best solution for this situation is, I would say that states should invest in open source AT, including technologies that use OpenDocument. If the states gave as much fiscal and developmental attention to production of AT applications as they had paid for JAWS and MAGIC, we would now have a viable and productive open source system affordable to all visually impaired and blind users.

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