26 October 2009

How Proprietary JAWS Bites the Blind

Here's a heart-warming tale of those kind people who make proprietary software, specifically of the piquantly-named company Freedom Scientific, which produces a program called JAWS:

JAWS (an acronym for Job Access With Speech) is a screen reader, a software program for visually impaired users, produced by the Blind and Low Vision Group at Freedom Scientific of St. Petersburg, Florida, USA. Its purpose is to make personal computers using Microsoft Windows accessible to blind and visually impaired users. It accomplishes this by providing the user with access to the information displayed on the screen via text-to-speech or by means of a braille display and allows for comprehensive keyboard interaction with the computer.

Clearly, JAWS fulfils an important function for the visually impaired. One might presume it is a font of benevolence and altruism, doing its utmost to help a group of people who are already at a disadvantage. Maybe not, according to this petition:

Braille displays require a screen reader in order to work. Freedom Scientific has steadfastly refused to provide Braille display manufacturers with the driver development kit required to enable a particular Braille device to communicate with JAWS. Instead, the manufacturer must first pay an outrageous sum of money before support for the Braille device will be permitted. What's more, this charge to the Braille display manufacturer is not a one-time fee but is imposed annually.

Well, that doesn't sound very kind. So why on earth do people put up with this?

One might ask how Freedom Scientific can play the gatekeeper to its JAWS product where Braille driver support is concerned. The answer is simply and for no other reason because it can.


I for one am shocked, appalled, and amazed that Freedom Scientific would impose such limitations and restrictions not only upon its own customer base but also on those organizations which manufacture products that supplement the information that JAWS provides. This draconian and self-serving policy is not at all in keeping with the pro-Braille spirit exemplified by the Braille Readers are Leaders Initiative set into motion earlier this year by the National Federation of the Blind in honor of the Bicentennial celebration of Louis Braille. Instead of offering an additional opportunity to expand the usage of Braille, it stifles the ability of the blind consumer to choose the Braille display that will best meet his/her needs.

And the reason it can, of course, is because it is proprietary software, which means that nobody can route around the problem.

This episode shows once again why it is vital for such software to be open source so that there is no gatekeeper, and so that the community's needs come first, not the desire of a company to make as much money as possible regardless of the plight of the people it affects.

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edd said...

It's not much better to write code for. There's no such thing as a developer's licence but you can use a free-beer evaluation copy. Only problem is you need to reboot your machine (and restart IDE, mail client, JAWS etc.) every 40 minutes! Evil company.

glyn moody said...

@edd: it's really sad. Here's a company that could really do much good in the world for a group that deserves all the help it can get. But it seems not to want that.

Anonymous said...

Jaws itself is not cheap: at about £700, it represents an extra tax on blind or partially sighted Windows users.

User of Linux fare a little better in that, Orca ships with most distros and controls screen reading, braille terminals and magnification. In my experience it does this quite badly.

Compiz does full screen magnification like expensive fullscreen magnification solutions on Windows such as Supernova. Text caret support has been promised and not delivered for about 3 years.

There is also a project called Voxin from Oralux which wraps the IBM ViaVoice TTS with some useful integration bits and pieces and is sold at low cost (€4.29) as it's a not for profit organisation.

There was a distro targeted at the blind called Blinux but I think this is dead. The most alive distro right now appears to be Vinux (previously Vibuntu) an Ubuntu spin.

So, your conclusion seems right to me. Linux use in the blind community is limited at the moment but this could change if the braille display manufacturers and other interested parties put their money behind supporting free software and progressing the current state of Linux accessibility so that it approaches or exceeds that of Windows.

glyn moody said...

thanks for that useful background. let's hope the free software projects are developed further to offer an alternative.

guy said...

Isn't it usually the case that popular free software recruits its developers from its users so there is hopefully someone ready to step in and take over if the initial developers drop out? So perhaps the reason why there isn't much effort devoted to distros that focus on this group of users is because it doesn't include sufficient developers.

How easy is programming for blind/partially sighted people? Pretty tough I imagine.

It is always said that the user(s) can pay someone else to fix the software, but does that really happen? Any examples?

glyn moody said...

@guy: yes, that's a good point - I don't know how easy/difficult it is for the visually impaired to code, but obviously there are barriers.

Equally, many hackers are motivated by altruism, so there might be some out there willing to do it.

Finally, it would surely be a good investment by societies representing the blind to commission this software and then give it away.

MarcoZ said...

On Windows, there's an open-source screen reader project called NVDA (http://www.nvda-project.org/) which also has braille support. Manufacturers can add their support for this screen reader if they like!

So there are alternnatives that are open even on Windows, one just needs to have the courage to take the plunge.

glyn moody said...

@MarcoZ - thanks