Quick post: On Operating Systems and Communities

To me, the core of accessibility is the operating system. What it allows, how easy the accessibility APIs are to both be used by developers, and upgraded by the operating system development team or community. At the same time, the support system of accessibility is the community. Without a community of users and developers, the accessibility of an operating system will not flourish.

In this post, I’ll discuss the different approaches I’ve seen in operating systems, and how users and developers in the community, primarily the blind community, have improved it. These are my opinions and thoughts, and others in the blind community, like fans of Linux, Android, and Windows, will feel differently.

MacOS and Android

These two operating systems are somewhat similar, in that they’re just now really getting support from their company on accessibility. MacOS had a good base, but is just now getting huge performance improvements and features that have been requested for years. Android had a stable base, if nothing else, and is also getting features that are making it more worthwhile to be used.

MacOS has had a good-sized community of blind users since the release of the iPhone 3GS and VoiceOver, maybe even earlier, to macOS Leopard. The community isn’t anywhere as large as the Windows community we’ll discuss later, but is slightly beginning to pick up steam, I’d say, as Windows falls into disrepair and macOS improves.

The community on Android primarily improves access by writing apps that work as accessibility services, like the Commentary screen reader, or the Advanced Braille Keyboard. Developers on macOS can script VoiceOver to a limited extent, allowing them to get information on, for example, what song is currently playing in Music, or how much free space is on their system. Using shell scripting with VoiceOver Applescripts could give powerful options for controlling a Mac computer with VoiceOver. Other apps have also been created, like VOCR for OCR and image recognition. An app called HammerSpoon is also used to add user interface sounds to macOS, like when a device is connected or disconnected.

Windows and iOS

Windows is the main operating system, besides iOS, that blind people use. It’s very open, but accessibility has markedly devolved since even Windows 10 a few years ago. From focus issues to keyboard commands being taken up by something blind people will not use, and when that feature is turned off, the keyboard shortcut is just mapped to nothing, Windows is declining. The community, however, is keeping it alive with addons and scripts for screen readers, apps for blind people, and the plentiful voices that have been created for Windows over the years.

Addons for NVDA include helpful tools like better handling of tables and the Windows console. There are also super-power tools like an automatic translation tool, a note-taker that can transform Markdown to Word format, and a talking clock that speaks the time every 30 minutes. Apps for the blind include a ton of games, MUD client packages with ready-to-go sound packs and scripts. Braille translation, YouTube audio downloaders, and in the past, even a full social network for the blind with a custom audio interface have also been created. Windows also allows for third-party screen readers, like NVDA and JAWS, alongside their Narrator offering.

iOS, on the other hand, is closed to addons and system-level extensions. This means that Apple’s small accessibility team has to offer all of VoiceOver’s features, and fix all the bugs. However, many apps exist to make things a lot better on iOS, from numerous games, to navigation apps, to text recognition and identification apps, and so on. Android has a good bit of these, but iOS has them all. Sure, Android has some that are smaller apps, but they just use either Microsoft or Google’s vision frameworks to do what the other apps on iOS already do. iOS also has been the first platform to do many things, like offer comprehensive Braille support, audible graphs, image recognition, accessibility actions, and screen recognition. On and smaller things like using actual pronounced audio as the substitute pronunciation, allowing someone to just speak how they want a word to be pronounced. Android doesn’t even have a pronunciation dictionary system-wide. No, pronunciation dictionaries for voices like Eloquence and Vocalizer don’t count. Oh, speaking of Eloquence, Apple was the first mainstream company to give many blind people what they want, Eloquence on their computers and phones. Now, regardless of what architecture iOS or macOS goes to, they’ll always have Eloquence. Compare that to Android where once phones go 64-bit, Eloquence is gone.

My thoughts

So, this is what’s wrong with Linux; it has very few blind people using it, and very few sighted people working on the accessibility frameworks. Windows just has such a history behind it that it cannot make itself more appealing to blind people. Apple I think need many more accessibility staff, and many more testers, especially in Braille, and management that will listen when they say a bug needs to hold back the release of an iOS version. Otherwise, bugs will keep piling up. Android is coming along, but it requires developers in the community behind it. Developers of apps will need to learn about accessibility actions, Braille support, and so on. As long as iOS languishes like this, Android can and will catch up. I’m somewhat excited about macOS, the most. It has a solid base, great features already built into VoiceOver and the system, and has iOS to lean on for things like a shared image description library. That talking clock add-on for NVDA? MacOS has that built in. Not even Windows has that. VoiceOver can also resize and move items, mostly useful in apps like GarageBand, but once tactile displays hit the market, who knows what will be possible with just that kind of forward-thinking support. Oh, not to mention the Actions' rotor on macOS, moving through linked items, heading navigation in documents, just little things like that that make macOS a joy to use.

I’d love to see that kind of attention to detail in other operating systems. I’d even more so love to see that attention to good design and a kind of understanding of how to make an interface where even a blind person feels like they’re using something beautiful. An interface that makes one want to continue looking at it because it’s so good, so helpful, and at the same time, friendly and inviting. Not the cold, sterile, and rundown feel of Windows, or the somewhat empty feeling of Android.

Devin Prater @devinprater