Monday, August 02, 2010

Screen Reader Safety Bowling

I want to preface this Ranger Rant by saying that the following opinion is firmly based in the part of my brain which looks at things from an Assistive Technology Training perspective. For those brave unsung heroes of the AT Community generally get the blunt end of things by unwillingly becoming Usability Testers for any new feature in a product. These guys and gals can tell you instantly when something works, or in some cases doesn’t, for a wide spectrum of computer users. The job of training is very rewarding: but it sure ain’t easy.

Imagine the amount of technical knowledge you must command these days to perform this noble job of training your fellow Blind person on even the basics of computing. Let us start with Windows. XP, Vista, 7 and now three flavors of Mac OS. Microsoft Office? 2003, 2007 or 2010? And we haven’t even gotten to the internet yet. The mind reels at the sheer height of the mountain that must be climbed if you want to succeed at being able to train the tons of people out there who either can’t afford to upgrade, or worse, who cannot upgrade easily because they form a dependence on task specific approaches to complete their daily lives.

Do you train on the out of the box interface or do you revert a person back to a Windows Classic look and feel? This question always becomes murky for some because it can play into one’s own bias about the changes that have come to Windows and Office over the years. Some out there will never give up training a person to strike the Windows Key, followed by S and then C to reach Control Panel. They are the same people who are the first to tell me that Windows 7 must be set back to some older interface for Screen Reader compatibility when many in the industry have worked with the out of the box Windows UI for years.

The announcement of the Virtual Ribbon in JAWS 12 has me both intrigued and cautious upon its description from this year’s major conventions. My mixed emotions are hard to sum up quickly on this concept because the feature pushes so many buttons for me; however, I’ll sum most of them up by saying that adding a layer like this to revert a person back to Classic is like bowling with Gutter Guards on both sides of the lane.

Again, from the AT Trainers standpoint, this is just another thing to be mastered in order to teach someone the best practice in navigating through controls and options. And again, like I said above, for some, this feature will enable students to not have to non-visualize the very visual thing that is the Microsoft Ribbon. It makes a lot of sense for those who really want to go back to a time where you could find everything through a series of menus and boxes. I get that, really I do.

The problem I have is that it sets a person apart from their sighted peers though. If you need to find something in a hurry, can you do that from another person’s instruction that just happens to be looking at their computer and the Ribbon? Can you pin common tasks to the Virtual Ribbon’s Home menu as you can in the MS Ribbon to make some tasks easier? I’m not sure but I do know that it means that I now have to learn yet another way of finding things regardless if I am training someone or trouble shooting their computer for technical issues.

I’m all for innovation and making things simple for the end user. It is a battle that is constantly being waged on what is a helping hand and what is an overdependence on macros. I’m thrilled to know that this upcoming JAWS feature is something you can choose to install because choice is always a good thing. I’m just not sure if shielding people from what is the natural User Interface is a better option for some out there. After all, the Ribbon has been fully implemented in all of Office 2010. So it isn’t going away anytime soon.

Learn about this new feature, and more, from the excellent Sight Village coverage from Hit the link below to get to their page with all the Sight Village links.

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