Subscription accessibility

There’s a company called browsealoud that produces a browser pluggin that reads out the text on the screen. It’s pretty good, helpful for people with cognitive difficulties or who’s primary language isn’t English.

At work a client received an email from someone asking why their site wasn’t “speech enabled”. This person said they were blind, and found the talking-browser product helpful, and why wouldn’t we speech-enable the web site.

Browsealoud doesn’t claim to be useful for more than a mild visual disability, which is fine, this compliant is not one the company would support. But I have a fairly fundamental problem with the business model that the user is implicitly supporting. I can understand this person’s point of view, he is using a product that has really helped. That’s great (although unlikely they are actually blind). However, globally, it’s a flawed strategy.

A great deal of work has been done on the accessibility of the website in question, and the team is taking a long-term view to ensure that the accessibility for all is maintained.

Any modern developer knows that the best thing to do in this regard is to follow the international (W3C) standards for development and accessibility to ensure that as many people as possible can access the content of the site.

Whilst browsealoud is a good product to use, I don’t consider it a sustainable strategy. The product could work for all sites, but the company has decided on a strategy of charging site owners to ‘enable’ their site, at an expensive yearly cost. Nothing in the site is changed to enable speech, it is just that people with the plug-in are allowed to use the site.

This strategy is their prerogative, but I just don’t see it as the best solution. From the user’s point of view, there will always be some (in fact many) sites that are not enabled, either due to cost or not knowing of the product.

There are products from free to expensive that can do similar things but work for all sites. Some of these can also help with general computer use as well, whereas browsealoud is purely focused on the Internet browser.

That is the reason I wouldn’t recommend anyone subscribe to a service, in the same way I wouldn’t recommend a text-site conversion service. It is simply something that should happen on the user-agent end.

So what did I suggest to this person? They are caught in the cross-fire of commercial spin and not having a useful user-agent.

A friend at work is an expert Jaws user, very active on the screen reader email lists and knows a great deal about various technologies for the visually impaired. She suggested a few things that would help in terms of financing a full screen reader (there are options whether you are in or out of work).

Some options in terms of products from expensive to free are:

  1. Jaws (UK retailer) is available from the official UK distributors for either £655 (standard) or £785 (Pro). This has historically been recommended by the RNIB, although I’m not sure of their current policy. Their main competitors are Window eyes and Hal.
  2. The Lookout screen reader can be purchased for £105, giving you full access to your computer and common applications.
  3. If only assistance with reading web pages is required, then IBM’s Home Page Reader can be purchased for £115 (or £95 for visually impaired users).
  4. Browsealoud can also recite the content within a web page. Therefore it’s not suitable for people who are fully blind. It cannot relay information about the browser, or any other application or the operating system. Browsealoud cite people with mild visual impairment as being a beneficiary of their technology, but do not claim it is a substitute for a screen reader.
  5. The Opera browser, available free of charge, also has in-built speech capability which can assist with reading web page content.
  6. Firevox, an extension to the Firefox browser it into a Home Page Reader like voice browser, free of charge.
  7. Windows has an in-built screen reader which is provided as part of the operating system. It can be activated in Windows XP by pressing the Windows key and u.

There are a lot of options these days, accessibility should be built in, not on subscription.


9 contributions to “Subscription accessibility

  1. Bruce Lawson pointed me to your post here…great reading. I’ve been meaning to write my personal thoughts on browsealoud in article form for some time now, and this spurs me on just to put finger to keyboard when I get a chance and just let rip.

    Incidentally, I can’t help but think that this “blind user” that contacted your client may well be fictitious (it does sound rather odd that a blind user would find browsealoud useful, as to use their computer they’d presumably already have a screenreader running on their OS)…could this be a new slant to TextHelp’s “plant” users, such as Dyslexic Duncan ? Something doesn’t quite smell right, if you ask me.

    But hey, you know, the PAS “recommends” browsealoud, or does it?

  2. Thanks Patrick, I’ve had a fairly relaxed launch, it’s been sitting locally for a while, and I put it live last week. (Thus the old article dates.)

    I doubt that the user was from browsealoud in this case. They don’t tend to push it as something for blind people for obvious reasons.

    Also remember that you can be classed as blind and still retain some vision. I got the impression he was a little confused as to what he wants or should have, which is really what prompted me to post. Plus I don’t think their business model will be successful for the users.

  3. Very nicely put Alastair. The browsealoud model just doesn’t work for me either, but they do seem to be capturing a good bit of the public sector market.

  4. Good write up Alistair, Dan pointed me this way after I commented about Textic and their “Well Adjusted” Campaign over at my blog.

    I can’t readily find the evidence but we looked at Browsaloud a couple of years ago and discovered that the audio file was about 1Mb in size and just raises a different accessibility barrier with regard to download speed. Easy for corporate users to not notice that.

  5. Thanks Karl,

    I’m not sure what you mean by sound file?

    Once you’ve got the (browser) pluggin, I thought it simply read from the browser window? (Not DOM, in IE’s case at least.)

    I know you can get different voices for it (some of them very good, at a small license cost), but I’m pretty sure it’s not on a site by site basis.

  6. Oh dear, there is some more dodgy marketing going on for a similar product (via ITPro) where they say:

    “It’s the silver bullet,” IMRG’s Chief Executive James Roper told Reuters. “Put this little button on your site and suddenly you are legal.”

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