CODI: Cornucopia of Disability Information

What is the Role of Standard Application Software Manufacturers in Computer Accessibility?

				  Part III
		  What is the Role of Standard Application
	      Software Manufacturers in Computer Accessibility?


              And how does it relate to the roles of...
                 computer manufacturers?
                 operating system manufacturers?
                 third-party assistive device manufacturers?
                 systems integrators?




Computer Accessibility: A Cooperative Undertaking

As discussed in Part II, making computers and software more accessible is not
the sole responsibility of application software vendors.  Many aspects of
computer access are best addressed by others, such as hardware vendors,
operating system manufacturers, or third-party access product manufacturers.
However, there are some components of accessibility that can only be
addressed at the application software level.

To understand the role of application software manufacturers, it is important
to examine the roles of all parties involved in making computers accessible.

Each party has its own unique role, and must work together to achieve
computer accessibility:

    1) Hardware and operating system manufacturers,

    2) Third-party assistive device manufacturers,

    3) Standard application software manufacturers, and

    4) Systems integrators.


          
			The Role of the Hardware and
		       Operating System Manufacturers
          


As much as possible, the computer platform itself should be made directly
accessible by people with disabilities.  The computer "platform" is defined
here as:

    a) the input, output, and media hardware (keyboards, monitors,
       disk drives)

    b) the input and output drivers which control behavior of the
       input/output devices

    c) the system software tools used by the applications for input,
       output, and program control   

The hardware and operating system components may be produced by a single
vendor or by separate companies.  These components work together, however, to
give the computer its basic operating characteristics and requirements.
There are some accessibility features that can only be implemented at this
level, and those that are will benefit all application software manufacturers
by reducing the need to build these features over again in each application
program.  It is also of benefit to users in that there is a standard user
interface and operating characteristics across programs.  (See Part IV.)

In many cases, particularly for individuals with mild or moderate
disabilities, slight changes in the hardware or operating systems can make
the computers directly and completely accessible without any further
modification.  Once these modifications are incorporated into the design of
the hardware or software drivers, there is little or no additional
manufacturing cost.  This type of accessibility is called "direct
accessibility," since it allows individuals with disabilities to use the
computers directly as they come "from the box."  This is the most
cost-effective type of accessibility, and the most desirable, since it allows
individuals who have disabilities to access and use the computers in the same
fashion as anyone else.  It also allows them to access and use the computers
as they find them in educational, employment, or public environments without
having to bring along and install special access software or hardware in
order to use them (which is often difficult or impossible in public and some
other environments).

A second role for standard hardware and operating system manufacturers is to
design the computer platform to facilitate the connection and use of special
access tools (software and hardware) for individuals with more severe
impairments where direct access is not possible (see next section).



          
		  Role of Third-Party Access Manufacturers
          


Although direct accessibility of computers is by far the best situation, the
type or severity of some impairments precludes the ability to use computers
"off the shelf" (even if the computers have been designed to include as many
direct access features as practical).  In these cases, special interfaces,
software programs, or other accessories are required in order to allow the
individuals to access and use the computers.  The role of third-party or
"special access" manufacturers is to develop the special hardware and
software tools, and to make them available to people who require them.  As
noted above, standard hardware and operating system manufacturers can greatly
facilitate this process by designing their hardware and operating system
platforms to be compatible with the connection and use of such special access
tools.

While the use of special access products to access a computer is not as
desirable as being able to directly access and use the computers, there is a
need for and advantages to using third-party access products for some people,
especially those with more severe disabilities.  On one hand, individuals who
have to rely on third- party access devices do not have the ability to just
approach and use computers in libraries, laboratories, or employment
situations.  They must carry their special interfaces with them and be able
to connect them to or load them onto these computers before they can use the
computers.  On the other hand, third-party products which are targeted toward
a particular disability can sometimes provide more powerful and efficient
interfaces than could be efficiently built into a standard hardware/operating
system.  It is also sometimes necessary to incorporate additional hardware
into the interface (e.g., a dynamic braille display) which would be
impractical to incorporate into a standard computers design.  Third-party
access products are therefore important components in system accessibility,
and the only practical approach for some individuals with severe or multiple
impairments.

Thus, both direct accessibility (wherever possible) and third-party access
products (where built-in accessibility is not possible or is not efficient
enough) are necessary to meet the broad range of needs of people with mild to
severe disabilities.


		 Role of Application Software Manufacturers
          


The first two parties discussed (the standard platform manufacturers and the
third-party special access manufacturers) can work together to overcome most
of the access problems faced by people with disabilities.  However, access to
the computer and its operating system does not guarantee full access to
application software, and running application programs is the only use of a
computer for most people.  Some aspects of the computer's behavior are
completely in the control of the application software.  Therefore, effective
access to computers includes cooperation by the developers of application
software.  There are three general ways that manufacturers of application
software can improve access to and usability of their programs.

    1) Cooperate with other access features and utilities
       Not all information needed to operate the program is available
       at the system level.  Cooperation by the application program is
       therefore necessary in order for standard or special access
       features to be effective.

            For example, most programs running on graphics operating
            system use the system tools to display their menus.
            Access features can thus be designed which attach
            themselves to the system tools and provide access to all
            of these menus.  Occasionally, however, an application
            will create a custom menu or palette without using the
            standard system menu tools, or by using them for only part
            of the menu function.  In this case, the special access
            features attached to the operating system would be unable
            to determine what the items in the special palette were in
            order to present them to the individual with the
            disability (e.g., if they were blind) and to allow the
            individual with a disability to choose from among them.

    2) Tune the user interface to allow efficient use by people with
       different strengths
       In some cases, the standard access features built into the
       operating system may allow the person with a disability to use
       a program, but only in some round-about or inefficient manner.
       A slight change or option in the application program could
       substantially increase the efficiency with which individuals
       with disabilities could operate the program.  Since the person
       with a disability has to compete with their able-bodied
       colleagues, the ability to operate the program efficiently can
       be important to their maintaining comparative productivity to 
       their colleagues.

            For example, dialog boxes and many interactive programs
            may have numerous buttons in them.  An individual who can
            tab between the various buttons and fields would have
            access to the dialog box.  However, this type of operation
            would be much slower than that of other users, who could
            simply click on the desired buttons to access them rather
            than having to tab around.  Having the ability to type a
            command key to activate any button directly would greatly
            increase the speed with which a person with a disability
            (and anyone else whose hands were on the keyboard) could
            access and use these programs.

    3) Make sure your program doesn't break or interfere with existing
       access features or utilities
       Application programs can unknowingly include features which
       cause standard or third-party access features to break, or just
       not work with that program or function of the program.
       Understanding what accessibility features exist and how they
       function can help to prevent this problem.  It also makes the
       program generally more robust and compatible with other
       nondisability-related third-party add-on programs.

            For example, using nonstandard techniques for reading the
            keyboard, writing to the screen, or showing a cursor may
            be done for performance or other reasons, but could
            circumvent or break access software.  Several major
            application programs now do this.

    4) Testing your program for compatibility with 3rd party
       manufacturers of accessibility hardware and software
       In many cases they best means for providing access to persons
       with disabilities is through the use of 3rd party access
       devices or software.  However the design or improvements to a
       program can cause incompatibility problems for these 3rd party
       access products leaving a person who depends on them without
       access to the computer or your software.  Testing of your
       software for compatibility with major access software and
       hardware can prevent this problem.  Providing advance copies of
       the software to 3rd party manufacturers for testing can also
       help avoid this problem if it is done early enough in the
       design cycle to allow for changes in the design to overcome
       incompatibilities

            For example, screen reading software programs used by
            people who are blind can be made partially or completely
            ineffective depending on how new features, menubars,
            toolbars, etc., are implemented.



          
			 Role of Systems Integrators
          


In addition to the three major players, there is sometimes a fourth player,
the systems integrator, particularly in federal acquisitions.  Since systems
integrators do not usually create software or hardware, their role has not
been well explored.  However, for federal acquisitions, system integrators
are often the individuals who select the hardware and software offered, and
the individuals who provide the follow-up support.  Their role in overall
accessibility for offerings to the federal government is therefore
substantial.  Three key areas where systems integrators can have a major
effect are:

    a) the accessibility of the hardware and operating system
       platforms they select to use in their offerings,

    b) the accessibility of the application software they select to
       use in their offering (that is,

         -  the software's compatibility with disability access;

         -  the accessibility of software documentation;

         -  support services provided by the software vendor for users
            with disabilities),

    c) the accessibility of their training programs and materials to
       government employees who have disabilities, and

    d) the ability of integrators to both set up and provide
       maintenance support for federal employees with disabilities who
       are using the hardware/software packages offered by the systems
       integrator.

** Selection of the Hardware / Operating System Platform

In the past, there have been many compatible hardware platforms, and system
integrators could choose between different vendors in putting their packages
together.  This has not generally been true for operating systems.  However,
there is an increasing compatibility and inter-operability between operating
systems.  For example, there are three vendors who sell versions of DOS
(Microsoft, IBM, and Digital Research), as well as other operating systems
which allow DOS programs to be run within them (e.g., OS/2).  Windows
applications can be run within Windows, but can also be run within OS/2.
This, combined with the increasing cross-platform compatibility of
applications, is leading to a situation where systems integrators can begin
to choose between both different hardware and different operating system
vendors in putting together their packages.  Since these different hardware
platforms and, especially, different operating systems are beginning to
differ in terms of their built-in accessibility features, system integrators
can put together more or less accessible offerings to the government or other
purchasers by selecting more (or less) accessible versions of the hardware
and operating systems.

** Selection of Standard Application Software

Similarly, the increasing compatibility between applications, either directly
or via translators, is providing much greater choice.  Again, system
integrators can provide a much more accessible package by selecting
application software which is itself more accessible and compatible with the
access strategies or aids.  Selecting software which is more accessible will
also greatly reduce the problems faced by systems integrators when trying to
provide support to federal (and other) employees with disabilities who are
using the systems integrator's package.  It would both reduce the number of
compatibility problems that would arise and, if the original application
software vendors provided disability access support, provide the systems
integrator with a better and lower-cost mechanism for addressing any
compatibility problems that did arise.

** Accessibility of Training Programs and Materials

In addition to delivering the software and hardware, many systems integrators
also provide training for the client's employees in the use of their
products.  Since the employees they will be training may have disabilities,
the training materials and documentation used by the systems integrators
would need to be accessible to these employees as well.  Again, choosing
hardware and software which already has accessible forms of documentation can
greatly simplify the systems integrator's work in this area.

** Ability of Integrators to Set Up and Provide Maintenance for Their Systems

In addition to the training they provide, systems integrators often provide
continued support and maintenance for their systems after delivery.  If some
of their client's employees have disabilities, the systems integrators may
need to provide support for these individuals as well (both those employed at
the time of the bid and individuals with disabilities who are hired later).
This may involve trouble- shooting systems provided by the system integrators
or compatibility issues between existing access software and the package sold
by the integrators.


As previously discussed, the role of the systems integrator is not well
understood, and points discussed here are therefore preliminary in nature.
However, it is clear that the systems integrators will play a key role in
determining the actual access that federal employees with disabilities will
have to their computers and information processing environments.  It is also
clear that system integrators have major impact on which software packages
are offered to the federal government for most of their packaged buys.
Finally, it is clear that systems integrators cannot make the hardware and
software in their packages more accessible or compatible with special access
products from third-party vendors.  They will have to rely upon selecting
those hardware, operating system, and application software products which are
most accessible and compatible with third-party access systems.



NOTE: This White Paper is directed toward the accessibility issues as they
relate to application software developers.  There is a separate document,
titled Considerations in the Design of Computers and Operating Systems to
Increase Their Accessibility to Persons with Disabilities, which has been
developed by and for hardware and operating system manufacturers.  At
present, there is no document tailored to the needs of systems integrators.
Because of their key role in federal acquisitions, and the fact that they
face different problems and questions in making the systems they offer more
accessible, a separate tailored document should be developed to address their
needs.