Why keep your Assistive Technology up to date?

Software updates are typically released because bugs in the software have been repaired, security issue has been identified and patched, and new features have been added.  In all cases, these updates are typically bundled together and provided as automatic, recommended, or required updates. In the world of assistive technology, updating your assistive technology software is critical to keeping up with changes you are making to your operating system and programs, as well as changes that are being made without your input to websites and cloud computing applications.

When you update your computer operating system or applications, you are making changes than may impact other programs or applications.  For instance, an update to Google Chrome may change something critical for how your assistive technology subsequently works with Chrome.  We have all seen how updates to Google Chrome have made Flash obsolete, requiring trickle down changes to websites in order to avoid utilizing Flash.  Assistive Technology has a similar need to be updated to keep up with the changes and updates happening across other software solutions. 

While it is true that all assistive technology should be updated as they become available, this article will touch upon the JAWS screen reader, ZoomText, and the combination offering, Fusion, and how they demonstrate why assistive technology should be updated regularly to maximize benefit.

Why upgrade JAWS, ZoomText, and/or Fusion?

Fusion, and the products that make up Fusion (JAWS and ZoomText) are built to interact with other applications. By itself, JAWS is a tool for navigating the operating system, but the main purpose of JAWS is to provide access to the many functions and tasks a computer enables. These include:  Microsoft Word, email, social media, software for work such as pdfs, Excel, and more. JAWS converts content from your computer screen into speech. As a result of the need for JAWS to interact with other applications, and because other applications are not static and are constantly being updated as well, JAWS is continually being developed and improved. This allows the JAWS screen reader to keep pace with the frequent updates to a computer’s operating systems, applications, and any browser-based content.   Similarly, ZoomText functions by interacting with other apps and as those apps are changed or updated, ZoomText may need to be updated to respond to those changes.  Changes may bring online new tools, new functionality, and improved opportunities for usability.

Consider the frequency with which Google updates the Chrome browser.  Or the required Windows updates that plague you to install and restart on a regular basis.  If those updates require a subsequent update to JAWS, ZoomText or Fusion for usability, Freedom Scientific software developers must be continually releasing the products to respond to those changes.

How regularly is most software being updated?

In the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s, software was updated once a year at best, and more typically had a one-to-two-year release cycle. As computing moved to a connected and networked environment, those updates became much more frequent.

Development that followed a Waterfall process allowed for building a release as one single project, in stages.  This made responding to bug fixes or immediate security issues difficult as the entire project would need to be released to deploy the fix, or a “patch” would be released in the interim. Unlike the Waterfall process, the Agile development process provided software deployers the option to simultaneously work on many small projects and release updates as those small projects are completed.  This shift allowed for more maneuverability when bugs or security issues were found and provided a method for more frequent product updates and changes. 

Windows 10 gets a major release every 9 months, and users typically get it automatically. Chrome and Firefox tend to push updates every quarter. Office 365 updates every few months with new Accessibility API changes.  Google Docs updates constantly. 

How does Freedom Scientific keep up?

With updates constantly occurring across one software product or another, software such as JAWS, ZoomText, & Fusion that sit and interacts with various software products, must have a similar (frequent) update cycle.  In order to stay ahead of the changes being made that will impact the software, Freedom Scientific works closely with Microsoft, Google, and other major software products to identify what updates will impact JAWS and ZoomText users, and how/if the team needs to make changes to the product(s) in order to remain relevant and accessible.

This means that a JAWS or ZoomText user can update the software each time there is a new release, and certainly should update the JAWS, ZoomText or Fusion product prior to seeking customer service.  JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion updates will frequently incorporate improvements to the user experience due to issues that are identified via customer service and found to be a consequence of software updates in other products.  Updates to Freedom Scientific software products are typically a combination of new features and fixes to issues or improvements to the customer experience.

When should a user or organization update JAWS, ZoomText and/or Fusion?

A user or organization should consider keeping their assistive technology up to date at all times.  This means, that when an update is released, the update should be installed immediately.  If a user chooses not to update for each release, they should at minimum update if they experience any usability or technical issues.  In particular, prior to contacting customer service, it is strongly recommended that a user update their assistive technology to the current version. It may fix the issue they are experiencing, and if it does not, it will save time and a step in the customer service process. The first thing a customer service team member will ask is “what version is being used” and require an update if it is not current.  Many problems, bugs, and usability issues are resolved in a subsequent version of the product and therefore an update may be the solution. 

In addition to “when there is an issue” or “prior to contacting customer service”, updates to assistive technology should occur as soon as they become available.  Customers will want to benefit from the many features and functions being added to JAWS over time.  By updating annually, Freedom Scientific customers will experience new features, functions, and usability improvements.

Organizations must keep their assistive technology up to date in to make sure that any accessibility testing they do of their own websites, applications, and products accurately reflect how the assistive technology will work. Using out of date assistive technology for testing may highlight issues that have been resolved, miss unidentified issues, or neglect to take advantage of new features.

What big features have been added in recent years?

Some key new features that have been added to JAWS in recent years include (in 2019) Picture Smart which describes images. Key UIA improvements for Office 365 in both speech and Braille have also been made.  In 2020, JAWS updated built-in OCR compatibilities with the latest OMNIPage. Braille and Text Viewer were updated, as well. Most recently, in 2021, JAWS/ZoomText/Fusion added Voice Assistant, and improved Picture Smart and OCR options.

Voice Assistant is also new to ZoomText in 2021. Voice Assistant helps with various ZoomText and Fusion Commands and Features.  Voice Assistant provides a way to interact with ZoomText and Fusion in Windows 10 using speech input.

Assistive Technology is integral to every task on a user’s computer system. If the software on that system is updated regularly (which we know it is), the user’s assistive technology must also be kept up to date.  Many products, (particularly browser-based solutions), are updated without user input or permission.  Being deliberate about keeping assistive technology software current is a sure-fire way to minimize inconveniences and optimize spend.