Arriving: Easier-to-Use Software for the Disabled

FRAMINGHAM (04/27/2000) - A law set to take effect this year is causing ripples of change in the forms and document-viewing software used by the government and the private sector.

On Aug. 7, an amendment to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) becomes law, ordering that "information must be equally accessible, through technology, to both disabled and nondisabled federal employees and members of the public."

If software doesn't allow that access, the federal government can't buy it.

That impending reality is sending software vendors scrambling to increase their accessibility features.

Later next month, JetForm Corp. in Ottawa plans to release server-based, form-creation software code-named Jaguar.

Adobe Systems Inc. in San Jose has announced that its Acrobat document-viewing software will support Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), an application programming interface (API) that provides standard ways for software to plug into the Windows features used by assistive technology.

For example, the MSAA API exposes code so developers of assistive software can write applications that can work with or access or use most system-provided user interface elements, such as list boxes and buttons.

In developing MSAA, Microsoft has worked with the U.S. Department of Education's accessibility testing lab. Much of the language and standards of the new law were developed in the lab.

Building software to standards such as MSAA allows disabled customers to choose the assistive technology, such as screen readers or refreshable-Braille displays, that best suits them, said Douglas Wakefield, an IT accessibility specialist at the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board in Washington.

Serving Basic Needs

In contrast, building assistive technology into the software forces vendors to choose the lowest common denominator of functions, which serve only the most basic needs, Wakefield said.

"I can't carry a wide doorway around with me," said Wakefield, who uses a wheelchair and is visually impaired, "but I can carry a screen reader of my choosing."

Forms created in JetForm's Jaguar will let users plug into MSAA, but "because ours is an open system, you could also use" proprietary assistive technology in any application, said Andrew Bridge, JetForm vice president of North American Government Operations.

Jaguar-built forms "put the intelligence on the Web server rather than on the desktop," as was the case with its predecessor, FormFlow 99, Bridge said.

Via any Web browser, users request one of the XML-based forms. Software on the server recognizes which browser the user is running and, in a few seconds, sends the user a version of the form compatible with his browser, said Bridge.

That puts technology decisions in the hands of users and lets form designers build a single version that will run on any platform, Bridge said.

To access Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) files with assistive technology, Adobe offers users a free on-the-fly conversion service at http:// access.adobe.com. It converts PDF files, which screen readers can't follow, into HTML or plain text documents. The conversion approximates a single-column format, which visual-assist devices can decipher.

For creating interactive PDF forms in Acrobat that are accessible to people with disabilities, designers need the Adobe Acrobat Access 4.0 for Windows plug-in, which provides access to Windows screen-reading capabilities.

This year, the IRS used the Acrobat package to make interactive, online tax forms available on a CD to accountants and tax preparers, and downloadable free via the Web. The agency saved millions of dollars in mailing costs by using electronic forms, said an IRS spokeswoman.

Adobe didn't say when it will offer a downloadable demonstration of its technology for developing accessible interactive forms.

The technology works with the existing Acrobat 4.05 for Windows and uses the JavaScript TTS (text-to-speech) object, which renders machine text as digitally synthesized speech. To use the technology, users must have TTS engines on their PCs.

Form developers must also first download and install additional components, which are available at http://access.adobe.com.

The Microsoft Speech Application Programming Interface 4.0 software development kit includes a TTS engine. It can be downloaded for free at Microsoft's Web site. When a form created with this new technology is opened, saved, printed or closed, the document title is spoken, letting the user specify a file name and where to place the files.

Future releases of Acrobat will include native MSAA support, an Adobe spokeswoman said.

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