Free AT upgrades: a plea on behalf of users and developers

It was a cold July day in my home city of Perth when I eagerly checked the ‘upgrade status’ of my computer, at which point the day suddenly felt a little more sunny. I received the notification that my Surface was about to receive its Windows 10 update and I was really looking forward to it after trying out the insider preview a few months earlier. If the online comments were anything to go by, consumers worldwide were rejoicing. Windows 7 users were happy that they were finally getting the modern OS they wanted, and Windows 8.1 users were happy that Microsoft finally offered relief from a tablet-optimised OS that was largely used on devices that weren’t tablets. However, there were two groups of people who cried out ‘not again’ in unison as the downloading started: people with disabilities who use specialist Assistive Technology (AT) software, and developers who once again had to consider legacy issues despite the standards-compliant benefits the upgrade provided.

New OS = dead AT

To start with the AT users, the main complaint is that every time a new version of a popular commercial OS comes out, the AT being used is incompatible with the new version. For example, looking at the JAWS screen reader and seeing how its release history compares with the release of Windows, there is a notable gap between the two in several instances, including a year before JAWS was able to interact with the touch-enabled elements of Windows 8, arguably the OS’s most significant feature.

The issue of ‘don’t upgrade or your AT will die’ is by no means limited to JAWS.  Looking across the spectrum of AT products available at the moment there are very few willing to categorically state that they are compatible with Windows 10. Even NV Access, which has been quite nimble when it comes to providing compatibility for new operating environments, acknowledges that this time around NVDA had issues with  Windows 10’s new web browser, Microsoft Edge. The end result is that people who rely on their computers and devices won’t upgrade unless it’s absolutely necessary for fear something will break – and those fears are well founded.

Cost is a factor

Regular readers of this column will know that I’m a big supporter of the built-in accessibility features in popular operating systems, and under the circumstances it would be very easy for me to be dismissive of this whole issue by simply saying to the users of specialist products “What’s the problem? Just use the built-in accessibility features.” The reality though is that for many users it’s not that simple.  The built-in screen reader in Windows 10, Narrator, has improved a lot but it’s no JAWS. There’s also the fact that people would have to learn a new way of doing things which may be difficult if they’ve been using JAWS for two decades. It would also be easy to say “Well there might be a delay, but surely a new version of the AT product would come out reasonably soon after the new OS, right?” to which the answer could be ‘Yes’ for some products, but this doesn’t guarantee an upgrade either as often the new version of the AT still requires the purchase of the update, and that can be expensive.  In the past, there have usually been two costs; one for the OS and one for the AT. While it’s helpful that Windows 10 is free for most users, it highlights the stark contrast where specialist providers still charge for their upgrades. Taking the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach, I’m personally aware of several people with disabilities who are still using Windows XP with an ancient version of JAWS and running a version of Internet Explorer from ten years ago in fear of an upgrade breaking something which would result in paying money just to get back to where they were in the first place. 

The suffering web developer

If you think the going gets tough for AT users, spare a thought for the web developer who is trying to do the right thing.  With the release of Windows 10, accessibility professionals celebrate a momentous occasion – not so much the launch of a new Microsoft OS, but the long-overdue demise of Internet Explorer (IE). You don’t have to travel too far online to find plenty of articles singing the praises of the new Edge web browser – not because it’s particularly revolutionary, but because it’s better and ultimately marks the death of IE. Best of all, it’s much more standards-compliant than IE, meaning that developers can finally implement consistent accessibility improvements to their websites like ARIA across all the major platforms.

You’d like to think such news would resolve the problem, but it doesn’t.

Going back to the JAWS example, the blind user with Windows XP, it’s highly likely that the browser of choice by that user is IE as it tends to work best with JAWS. As a result, all the benefits of modern computing are not only hidden to the AT user, but developers can’t make it any better because no matter how cool their HTML5-supported accessibility wizardry works on a modern web browser, the IE6 user won’t get to experience it. As a result, developers have to continually be reminded to keep legacy accessibility support in their work because if they don’t, there are still a lot of users who will have issues.  A conversation I’ve had with ICT professionals time and time again is “Why do I still need to have a ‘skip to content’ link on a webpage when ARIA landmarks are so much better?” Unfortunately the answer is “Because lots of users still don’t have browsers or AT that supports ARIA.”  This results in a double  whammy for developers: not only are they powerless to do things that can help people with disabilities, but the release of Edge means that there’s now one more browser they have to support. With no opportunity to relinquish an old one.

Also spare a thought for the people working in the W3C working groups who develop new web standards: the joy in hearing the news that IE is dead and their work is being picked up in more web content, followed by depression because the people who arguably could benefit the most from such improvements are unable to use it because their browser is still IE6 and may stay that way for some time. 

The time has come for quick and free upgrades

In my opinion, the answer should focus on providing additional support to people with disabilities who need to upgrade, especially from very old versions of AT software. If you are a company that charges for upgrades, and that charge impacts on whether people with disabilities upgrade their software, please consider making your upgrade free and provided in a timely manner. Developers shouldn’t have to continually cater for outdated, bloated legacy browsers like IE, and AT users shouldn’t have to settle for an inferior web experience because their AT won’t work with the new OS and it costs too much to upgrade.  Perhaps you could even start a trade-in initiative, ensuring that loyal users of your products can get to an updated version of your products so that they can benefit from the fantastic benefits modern standards and their implementation in browsers can provide. Apple provides free upgrades for its OS and Microsoft are now providing free upgrades for most of their users, so the time has come for some proactive effort to do the same.

My final thought for this month is for developers and the producers of standards – thank you for your perseverance in a landscape of frustration.  I’m sure a time will come when your work is better appreciated and I fully agree that it’s hard when even Microsoft kills off its outdated web browser but you’re forced to keep supporting it.  Know that your work is appreciated and hopefully the time will come when the whole concept of AT software is as free as the upgrades should be.