Providing Access to Graphical User Interfaces - Not Graphical Screens

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Edwards, W. Keith
Mynatt, Elizabeth D.
Stockton, Kathryn
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The 1990 paper "The Graphical User Interface: Crisis, Danger and Opportunity" summarized an overwhelming concern expressed by the blind community: a new type of visual interface threatened to erase the progress made by the innovators of screen reader software. Such software (as the name implies) could read the contents of a computer screen, allowing blind computer users equal access to the tools used by their sighted colleagues. Whereas ASCII-based screens were easily accessible, new graphical interfaces presented a host of technological challenges. The contents of the screen were mere pixel values, the on or off "dots" which form the basis of any bit-mapped display. The goal for screen reader providers was to develop new methods for bringing the meaning of these picture-based interfaces to users who could not see them. The crisis was imminent. Graphical user interfaces were quickly adopted by the sighted community as a more intuitive interface. Ironically, these interfaces were deemed more accessible by the sighted population because they seemed approachable for novice computer users. The danger was tangible in the forms of lost jobs, barriers to education, and the simple frustration of being left behind as the computer industry charged ahead. Much has changed since that article was published. Commercial screen reader interfaces now exist for two of the three main graphical environments. Some feel that the crisis has been adverted, that the danger is now diminished. But what about the opportunity? Have graphical user interfaces improved the lives of blind computer users? The simple answer is not very much. This opportunity has not been realized because current screen reader technology provides access to graphical screens, not graphical interfaces. In this paper, we discuss the historical reasons for this mismatch as well as analyze the contents of graphical user interfaces. Next, we describe one possible way for a blind user to interact with a graphical user interface, independent of its presentation on the screen. We conclude by describing the components of a software architecture which can capture and model a graphical user interface for presentation to a blind computer user.
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