Accessibility at Microsoft: More Challenges than Victories

by Curtis Chong
Braille Monitor April 2015

From the Editor: Curtis Chong is the president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science.

There can be little doubt that Microsoft products are widely used today in almost every aspect of life. The majority of employers in this country require their employees to use programs from Microsoft (especially programs that are part of Microsoft Office) to accomplish the tasks they perform every day such as sending and receiving email, creating and editing documents, administering databases, managing projects, and so on.

At home many people have personal computers that run the Microsoft Windows operating system and possibly Microsoft Office. At my doctor’s office I cannot avoid the sound of the mouse clicking as my doctor reviews my medical chart using a computer powered by Microsoft Windows. While computers made by Apple arguably are gaining market share, Microsoft programs continue to maintain a highly visible presence in our lives. For those of us who are blind, access to Microsoft products is not just something that we would like to have. Rather, full nonvisual access to Microsoft products is essential if we are to have any hope of being
able to compete in today’s technology-driven labor market, let alone maintain parity with our sighted neighbors at home.

For more than two decades the Microsoft Corporation has had a team of individuals responsible for promoting and assuring the accessibility of its various products to people with disabilities, including the blind. You might assume, therefore, that after more than twenty years of effort, Microsoft would stand out as a leader in the world of accessible software and that all (or at least most) of the programs it sells would be accessible to and usable by the blind. If so, you would be wrong! After twenty years of effort, Microsoft’s accessibility team is still unable to serve as a gatekeeper to prevent Microsoft from releasing blatantly inaccessible products.

The frustrating reality is that the accessibility effort within the Microsoft organization has not been given the power and influence it must have if the goal of ubiquitous accessibility is ever to be achieved. In other words a Microsoft product is accessible today not because it is required to be so; it is accessible because the accessibility team was able to persuade a specific product group to do what is necessary to make its product work for people with disabilities.

Today only a small percentage of Microsoft products are regarded by the blind as comfortable and intuitive to use. Examples include Windows Explorer (referred to as File Explorer in Windows 8), most of the Microsoft Office Suite, Internet Explorer, and several (but not all) functions of the Windows operating system. Even for these supposedly accessible programs, accessibility and efficiency have deteriorated as newer versions of software are released. Consequently, whenever we who are blind hear about a new Microsoft product, we feel a certain amount of skepticism about the ability of that product to work with our screen-access technology and are pleasantly surprised if, in fact, the product turns out to work for us.

Below are seven examples of how Microsoft has fallen short of what seem like very realistic accessibility goals. As you consider these examples, bear in mind that this list represents a tiny fraction of the scope of the problem and that well over 80 percent of Microsoft products remain inaccessible to nonvisual users.

BitLocker

A concrete example of a product that simply cannot be used by the blind, but which is an integral security component used in employment situations, is Microsoft’s BitLocker software, which provides full disk encryption. BitLocker requires the user to enter a PIN (personal identification number) before the full Windows operating system is started. While competing full-disk encryption programs have offered the ability to generate an audible tone that can be used to alert the blind user that information needs to be entered, BitLocker offers no such indication. Despite years of repeated entreaties by blind people for Microsoft to fix this problem, we have yet to see a version of BitLocker that addresses this issue. A blind employee who is required to use a computer with Microsoft BitLocker installed will be unable to turn the computer on and get it running not to mention use it.

SharePoint

Microsoft SharePoint, a program used by many institutions (many of which employ the blind), is not fully accessible to the blind. SharePoint has been found to be so frustrating for the nonvisual user that a third-party vendor believes that it can sell an add-on solution to large enterprises (e.g.,
state or federal agencies) that costs as much as $12,000 for a single user license. If Microsoft’s accessibility effort were working, a product that is as widely used as SharePoint would already be as convenient and effective for the nonvisual user as it is for everyone else.

Keyboard Only Users

There does not appear to be any user-experience research being conducted by Microsoft into improving efficiency for keyboard-only users, including the blind. This has already had a negative impact on keyboard-only users of the spell checker in Word 2013, which no longer provides accelerator keys to speed up the selection of options when spelling errors are detected.

Application Program Interface (API)

Microsoft struggles to implement an API (application program interface) which makes it easier for screen-access software to get information about application states, messages, and controls. Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) and User Interface Automation (UIA), two examples of existing accessibility APIs, have existed within the Windows operating system for many years, but they have apparently not done much to solve the accessibility problem. While I applaud the fact that Microsoft has worked hard to ensure that Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8 have worked with updated releases of screen-access software on the day they were released to the public, it must also be recognized that, in order for this to have happened, the screen-access software vendors (very small companies in relation to Microsoft) had to devote considerable resources to make this happen. It would be better if these relatively small companies could spend more time and effort coming up with innovations that improve the efficiency and productivity of blind users of their software.

Windows Phones

For years Microsoft has left the blind with no access to Windows phones. Given that iOS and Android phones have had some form of nonvisual access for years, we find this frustrating, if not shameful. It is even more disheartening when we remember that, when Windows Phone was first released to the market in 2010, Microsoft made a very clear business decision not to include or support a screen reader for the Windows Phone platform.

Refreshable Braille Displays

Unlike its main competitors on desktop and mobile platforms, Microsoft has failed to provide built-in support for refreshable Braille displays to be connected to and used on its various platforms. This is particularly vexing for users who are both deaf and blind for whom refreshable Braille displays are the only way to interact with computer software. The Apple Macintosh and the Apple iPhone support a variety of refreshable Braille displays without requiring the customer to install device-specific drivers, and these products entered the market well after Microsoft began working on accessibility.

Maintenance

The maintenance, setup, and recovery of Microsoft Windows continue to be inaccessible to the blind. Consequently, there is an added cost in time and/or money to the blind user, who has to bring in (and often pay for) sighted assistance to install, upgrade, or repair a Windows system. This situation is unacceptable especially given the fact that Apple OS X and iOS operating systems incorporate accessibility tools that enable the blind computer user to perform maintenance, upgrade, and recovery tasks without sighted assistance. Moreover, this problem curtails the ability of the blind to accept Windows system support jobs in information technology.

Year after year, the National Federation of the Blind and the Microsoft Accessibility Team engage in active and ongoing communication, and year after year, we have communicated our frustrations and concerns to this team. I and other leaders of the NFB in Computer Science have met at many national conventions with Rob Sinclair, the head of Microsoft’s accessibility team. Although our meetings are very positive and our relationship with Mr. Sinclair extremely collegial, the reality is that we see far more accessibility challenges with Microsoft products than victories. Perhaps this is because, at Microsoft (as with too many other companies), accessibility continues to be a matter of education and persuasion and not something that everyone within the company is required to achieve. How different the situation would be if Microsoft had in place a policy which required accessibility instead of merely encouraging it.

As Microsoft products move from the desktop to the cloud and as its corporate customers move in this same direction, it is vital that nonvisual users be able to move with them; our jobs and our independence demand it. Now, the $64,000 question is, how can we get Microsoft to deliver ubiquitous accessibility and usability to everyone including the blind?

Reproduced from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm15/bm1504/bm150403.htm