Eric Damery Reflects on the Impact of JAWS and Shares How Some of Your Favorite Features Came to Be

After more than 28 years advocating for JAWS and other software, plus impacting the industry with countless contributions, Eric Damery has retired. Along with announcing the availability of Fusion Suite Public Beta and the approach of the 2023 release, we want to reflect on the impact of JAWS from Eric’s perspective and discuss a few of its most significant features.

Eric came to the industry after his father became visually impaired and needed assistive technology for reading and other daily living tasks. By joining Henter-Joyce in 1994, Eric committed himself to learning JAWS as a sighted user so he could fully understand what users who are blind experience. He says “sales happen when the product can deliver”, and demonstrating features and benefits is essential. “Customers know when they are hearing a sales pitch and when you can speak from experience. I encourage everyone to invest the time and really master your craft no matter what you do,” Eric says.

When asked which JAWS features were real game changers in the industry, Eric provided three that have played crucial roles in how we use screen readers today.

JAWS Scripting

Eric explained the benefit of developing JAWS using a scripting language. “This put customers in control of their experience, and really set JAWS apart from the other 8 to 10 competitors in the early years of Windows Screen Readers.”

Scripting was especially critical in the early days when there were no application programming interfaces (APIs) designed to share information with a screen reader. Because of this, screen reader developers like Henter-Joyce could not address all the challenges users faced when using applications. “The Scripting language gave hundreds of talented people the opportunity to become employed writing scripts so that thousands of others could get jobs in various companies and agencies and really be productive.”

The power of scripting became apparent to Eric in the mid-1990s when people began sharing information and experiences in online user groups. “It was here where I recall coming across two amazing young men: Joe Stephen from Australia and Marco Zehe from Germany. They were pioneers like many other users who were out there on these lists teaching things about Windows and JAWS.”

Joe and Marco subsequently joined Henter-Joyce, and “went on to contribute to this industry in ways I couldn’t have even imagined back then.”

Eloquence Speech Synthesizer

The use of a screen reader like JAWS requires a synthesizer to voice the speech output. In the early days, this was available only in hardware form, and was either installed inside the computer or connected externally. Synthesizers needed to be purchased independently of the screen reader, and ranged in price from $300 to $1,000. This all changed around 1997 when Henter-Joyce discovered a new solution developed by a small company in Ithaca, New York called Eloquent Technology. “That product was Eloquence,” Eric continues, “and it is still considered the best solution in the English-speaking market today.”

Eloquence offered a less mechanical-sounding solution that was very responsive. “Once you grew accustomed to using it, you could increase the speech rate while still finding it very easy to understand.”

Henter-Joyce was able to negotiate a lower cost and include Eloquence in the JAWS software. This opened the door to JAWS users around the world who could not afford the costly hardware synthesizers.

Eloquence was also included in the 40-minute demonstration version users can install prior to purchasing a JAWS license. This mode enables them to learn their way around Windows with JAWS even before installing the full version.

Training

From day one, Henter-Joyce focused on training. In addition to providing many ways for users to get help within the software itself, hours of JAWS Basic Training materials were included on six cassettes that shipped with every product. “Let’s face it. Sitting down with a sighted individual who is going to try and explain Windows concepts to a screen reader user, when that trainer has no real skill running a PC with a screen reader, is frustrating at best,” Eric says. “From day one, we concluded that if people were going to invest in our software, we were going to invest in giving them training material with every product so they could get started on their own.”

Today, training is still front and center. In addition to the JAWS Basic Training material now included in DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) audio and text formats, a wealth of free training content is available online in multiple formats to accommodate users’ preferences.

Eric has seen many changes in the assistive technology (AT) industry over the years. We asked him to impart a few words of wisdom to anyone currently working in the industry, or who aspires to in the future. “Buckle up. The industry is moving faster than ever. Over the past 10 years or so, companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google have really taken accessibility to a new level within their development teams and this will help companies like Vispero create the next generation of tools to make it all work more efficiently for our customers.”

Eric also shared that he has seldom met a person who left this industry after reaping the rewards of working in it. “Often they move from company to company, but generally they stay in the business because when we stop working at the end of the day, we know it has made a difference and we are looking forward to the new challenges we will face tomorrow.”

Listen to FSCast 218 for an in-depth look back on Eric’s career with Glen Gordon.