FSCast #232

June,  2023

GLEN GORDON:  On FSCast 232, I’ll give you a tour of the just-released Message Center.  It’s a great way to keep up with product news and announcements, but to read them when it’s convenient.  Then we’ll meet longtime JAWS developer Brett Lewis.  In his other life, he’s a former Paralympian in judo, and loves the sport so much that he still teaches it three nights a week.

Summer Convention Time

GLEN:  Hello, everybody.  Glen Gordon here, this time with our podcast for June of 2023.  I want to start out by talking about the upcoming summer conventions here in the United States.  Sometimes they overlap; sometimes they don’t.  And this is one of those big overlap years.  Both the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind will be having their respective conventions the first week of July.  Freedom Scientific and our related Vispero companies will all be there in fine form.

And yes, of course we’re running specials again this year.  It wouldn’t exactly be a summer conference without them.  This time, 20% off of all hardware.  Not only that from Freedom Scientific, but also from Optelec and Enhanced Vision.  20% off of all home-related use of JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion, as well.  So this includes the Home Annual License, SMA renewals, and any other kind of upgrade related to your use at home of JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion.

The trick, of course, is you need to contact us with one of these special codes.  If you’re at the NFB conference, the code is NFB2023.  We will be there in booths C1 through C5.  At ACB, the code is ACB2023, and you can find us in booths 41 and 42.  If you’re attending one of the shows online, the specials are open to you, too.  Just remember either ACB2023 or NFB2023, and take advantage of them during the week of July 1st through July 6th.  You can either do that online or by contacting one of our customer service representatives.  We’ll happily apply the 20% discount.

And speaking of the conventions, Ryan Jones will be the man of the hour; or, in the case of NFB, the man of three hours.  On July 1st, from 8 till 11 in the morning, he will be doing the traditional “What’s New in JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion” presentation.  If you’re coming to ACB, you won’t be left out.  He will be there, too, on Sunday afternoon, July 2nd, at 2:30 for a “What’s New in JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion.”  Ryan is also the keynote speaker at ACB.  That’ll be on Monday, July 3rd, at 8:45 in the morning.  All of this information and a whole bunch more is available by going to freedomscientific.com/events, and on our event calendar you can find specific pages for both ACB and the NFB convention.

Browser Woes

GLEN:  Most of you have probably experienced firsthand, or have heard about, one of the ramifications of the rollout of Chrome 114, followed by Edge 114 around the beginning of June.  And the symptoms, especially with older versions of JAWS, like 2021 and earlier, but also with current versions when it came to Microsoft Edge being used in other apps like Teams or OneDrive, was that the virtual buffer didn’t always work.  And there was a simple workaround, which was to turn on the JAWS cursor and go back to the PC cursor.  But if you didn’t know about that, there was no quick workaround.  You just couldn’t access the web pages.  If you want to read more of the details, you can go to blog.freedomscientific.com.  We have a couple of blog posts that lay out all the details.

The good news is, through a combination of a change that we made in JAWS 2023 in the June update, plus changes that got made in Chrome, and by the time you’re hearing this, by Microsoft for older versions of JAWS, this issue is pretty much gone.  But several people have asked me to explain a little bit more about what went wrong and why it happened.  At the root of all of this is the fact that Chrome, Edge, Brave, Opera, and a whole bunch of other browsers are based on the Chromium framework.  And this is great news if new accessibility features get introduced because they get rolled out to all these different browsers at approximately the same time.

The problem is that, if an issue gets introduced, and it doesn’t get caught in preliminary testing, that’ll get rolled out very quickly to all these browsers, as well.  Fortunately, that happens very infrequently.  But the situation at the beginning of June was an exception to that rule.  And it goes back to the fact that browsers don’t want to turn on accessibility support unless they’re sure that something like a screen reader is running because it takes extra CPU cycles, it takes extra memory, and generally causes the browser to perform less well when people don’t even benefit from what the accessibility support adds.

Unfortunately, there is no reliable way that they can simply ask, “Is a screen reader or magnifier running?”  And so the next best thing was to develop some tests that usually proved correct in answering that question.  They send out certain accessibility events unconditionally, even before they know whether or not a screen reader is running.  If no one responds, then they pretty much assume, “No screen reader here, let’s continue.”  But if something responds, asking for information in a way that screen readers typically do, they say, “Oh, screen reader is running, let’s turn on full accessibility support.”

It’s been this way for at least 10 years, and there’s been no real problem with that approach until very recently when something about Windows 11 changed, and somehow parts of the operating system began responding to these probing accessibility events in the same way that screen readers do.

The result of all of this was that suddenly accessibility support was being turned on for hundreds of millions of users of all Chromium-based browsers.  I have no doubt that this caused a bit of a concern.  They wanted accessibility support only to be on when it was needed, which meant that some quick work was needed to develop a solution to ignore the false positives generated by the responses from the operating system and still recognize screen readers when they were running.  But ultimately, this meant that the conditions under which a screen reader was detected got tightened up.  Microsoft tested Edge, Google tested Chrome, both against JAWS 2023, and everyone thought it would be safe to release this new version.

What no one expected was that there are subtle differences between the way that JAWS 2021 and earlier, versus JAWS 2022 and later, respond to accessibility events.  These differences didn’t used to matter, and not even we realized that they existed.  But once the conditions for detecting a screen reader got tightened up, they started mattering, and no one expected this.  And only when version 114 of the various browsers released to a larger group did we realize that a big problem existed.  Sometimes when there’s a problem, it really tests just how quickly people can respond to make things better.  And this test, I think, passed with flying colors.

We have really strong contacts on both the Chrome and Edge accessibility teams, folks who take accessibility as seriously as we do, which meant that when we sounded the alarm at 10:00 on a Friday morning, by 2:00, four hours later, we had people from both companies on a call with us to talk about the roots of the problem and to brainstorm solutions.  This would never have happened had we not had strong contacts because starting with Google or Microsoft support would have taken us a long time to get to the right folks.  So we thank them all very much, not only for meeting with us, but for getting their respective teams working very quickly to craft solutions and get them into their products.

I said a moment ago that most of the Windows-based web browsers are based on Chromium.  There is one major exception to that, and that is Firefox.  You may recall, if you’ve been listening to FSCast for quite a while, that about four years ago, Firefox made some changes when they switched to multiprocess mode that made browsing with it and a screen reader not as efficient as it used to be, and not as efficient as with Chromium-based browsers.  My hat is really off to James Teh, who heads accessibility for Firefox, because he also felt the pain of performance not being as good with Firefox and screen readers as it used to be, and managed to muster the sizable resources required for changing some of their internal accessibility plumbing to get performance back up to what it used to be prior to multiprocess mode being switched on.

The upshot of all of this is that now may be a really good time to try Firefox again, if you’ve stopped using it, because sometimes it’s really good to have a browser in your toolbox that doesn’t have the same technical origins.  Just in case a problem like this comes up, and you need to browse while a solution is being worked out, Firefox I think has once again become a viable screen reader option.  I encourage you to give it a try, even if it is a secondary browser for you, just to have it available.

Message Center

GLEN:  If I had had to try to come up with a story that illustrated the need for something like Message Center, which we’ve just introduced with our June updates, I could not have come up with a better one than the one that I just told you because the hardest thing about the problem with Chromium web browsers and the virtual cursor not coming on was getting the word out of how you could work around it until a more permanent fix was available.  We did the best we could with our blog and other social media, but it would have been far better for us to have made information available to you in your product of choice at the time we learned of the problem.

And that’s one of several things that Message Center solves.  It basically allows us to communicate with you in a way that is non-intrusive, but still gets information across.  I have just updated to the June update of JAWS 2023 on this particular machine.  I’ve shut down JAWS.  I’m going to restart, and you’ll hear what happens.

JAWS VOICE:  JAWS, desktop, folder view, list view, Reaper, eight of 17, new notification from JAWS, new JAWS messages available.  To view them, choose Message Center from the JAWS Help menu, one of one.

GLEN:  So that came through as a standard Windows notification.  So you found out that new messages have arrived, but your work has not been interrupted.  And this is the first time that we’ve had a way to post messages to you, but not require pressing OK on a dialog box, like was the case with our old way of informing you of new FSCast episodes.  There are a couple of ways to get to Message Center.  The most obvious one is from the JAWS Help menu.  I have JAWS set up to run from the system tray.  So when I press JAWS Key+J...

JAWS VOICE:  JAWS context menu.  Options submenu.

GLEN:  I can hit H for help.


GLEN:  And if I arrow down once...

JAWS VOICE:  Message Center (3).

GLEN:  The three in parentheses means that I have three unread messages.  I’ll press ENTER.

JAWS VOICE:  Leaving menus.  Message Center.  Messages multi-select list box, unread, June update available, what’s new?  JAWS, what’s new?  June 20th, 2023, one of three.

GLEN:  So if that sounds a little bit like what you hear when you’re in an Outlook inbox or other email client, this is not by accident.  We wanted to patent it after email programs because that’s the closest thing that Message Center resembles.  It’s a way to get messages and to review them.  I can arrow down so you get an idea of the other messages I have.

JAWS VOICE:  Unread.  Say hello to our new Message Center.  Announcement, June 12th, 2023, two of three.

GLEN:  And once more.

JAWS VOICE:  Unread, FSCast 230 with Major Scotty Smiley and Dr. Michele McDonnall, podcasts, June 5th, 2023, three of three.

GLEN:  For each message you’ll hear the subject, the category, and the date.  The categories will come up again when I show you how to customize which messages you receive.  I’ll press HOME now to get back to the first message.

JAWS VOICE:  Unread, June update available, what’s new?  JAWS, what’s new?  June 20th, 2023, one of three.


JAWS VOICE:  Page has one link. June update available, what’s new?  JAWS:  We are pleased to announce our June update, packed with exciting features and improvements.  Take a look at the highlight:  list of three items.

GLEN:  There are three list items, and you know that because this is actually a mini webpage.  And so we announce things the same way as we do on the web, and also all the web keystrokes are available to you.  JAWS Key+F7 to get a list of links, hitting U to move to unvisited links, and so forth.  If I hit TAB here...

JAWS VOICE:  What’s new in JAWS 2023 screen reader link.

GLEN:  And that’s because there’s a link in this message.  If I were to press ENTER here, it would take me to our webpage describing the update in greater detail.  If I tab again.


GLEN:  And that’s because there are no more links in the message.  And so it took me to a DELETE button for this message.  Rather than deleting it from here, I’ll hit ESCAPE.

JAWS VOICE:  Message Center, messages multi-select list box.  June update available, what’s new?  JAWS, what’s new?  June 20th, 2023, one of three.

GLEN:  I’m back on the list of messages.  Notice that this message no longer says “unread.”  If I tab a few times here...


GLEN:  That’s one way to delete the message.  You can also simply press the DELETE key when you’re on the message list.

JAWS VOICE:  Settings button.

GLEN:  Let’s go into Settings here.

JAWS VOICE:  Settings dialog.  Windows notifications:  Send notifications about new messages, checkbox checked.

GLEN:  This is what controls whether or not I’ll get a Windows notification when new messages are there.  If you disable this, the only way you’re really going to find out that there are new messages is if you go to the JAWS Help menu and look at the entry for Message Center, because the number of new messages will be in parentheses, or you actually open Message Center.  So this is an option that I for one will leave enabled.  The rest of what’s in this dialog are different categories of messages that you may or may not want to receive.  All of them are enabled by default, but you can disable those that are not of interest to you.  I’ll tab through a few of these now.

JAWS VOICE:  Receive messages about:  Announcement checkbox checked.  Events and conferences checkbox checked.  Learning checkbox checked.  Podcast checkbox checked.  Power Tips checkbox checked.

GLEN:  The only thing that’s left is a few more of these checkboxes and the OK and CANCEL button.  Pressing ENTER is the same as choosing OK.  I’ll do that now.

JAWS VOICE:  Settings button.

GLEN:  I’ll tab.

JAWS VOICE:  Close button.

GLEN:  And one more time.

JAWS VOICE:  Search edit.

GLEN:  And this is a search field that’ll allow you to filter messages to just the ones you care about.  So I know that there’s an FSCast notification here.  I’ll type FS.

JAWS VOICE:  One match found.

GLEN:  And if I tab now...

JAWS VOICE:  Messages multi-select list box.  Unread, FSCast 230 with Major Scotty Smiley and Dr. Michele McDonnall.  Podcasts, June 5th, 2023.  One of one.

GLEN:  If I want to see all the messages again, I do a shift tab to get back to the search field.

JAWS VOICE:  Search edit.  FSC.

GLEN:  The entire text is selected.  So if I hit BACKSPACE...

JAWS VOICE:  F.  Selection deleted.

GLEN:  And now if I tab...

JAWS VOICE:  Messages multi-select list box.  June update available, what’s new?  JAWS, what’s new?  June 20th, 2023.  One of three.

GLEN:  And if I hit DELETE on this message...

JAWS VOICE:  Unread.  Say hello to our new Message Center.  Announcement, June 12th.

GLEN:  So that first message is gone.  I’m on the second one.  There are two left.  If I hit ESCAPE, Message Center will close.

JAWS VOICE:  Desktop, folder view, list view.  Reaper, eight of 17.

GLEN:  Besides getting to the Settings Center by bringing up the JAWS menu, going to Help, and arrowing down once, there is a shortcut key.  It’s JAWS Key+SPACE followed by SHIFT+M.  JAWS Key+SPACE and then SHIFT+M.  The reason it’s SHIFT+M and not just plain M is because JAWS Key+SPACE followed by M selects between a place marker and your current location.  That is such a popular command amongst many of our users, we didn’t want to displace people by moving it.  So to bring up Message Center, JAWS Key+SPACE followed by SHIFT+M.  And there you have a quick overview of what Message Center has to offer.

But the truth of the matter is what is really going to be offered is the content that we provide.  You probably could tell from those various categories that we tabbed through under Settings that we have big plans for Message Center.  The first of those is to expand into different languages.  This initial release as part of the June product updates is just available in English and in Dutch, but more languages coming as part of our 2024 product releases in October.  We hope that Message Center becomes a go-to spot for you to get news of all things Freedom Scientific, and specifically about the product that you’re using.

Interview with Brett Lewis

GLEN:  With me now is longtime JAWS user and developer Brett Lewis.  He’s been working on JAWS for most of the last 20 years.  Though he’s departed a couple of times, there’s always been the allure of working on JAWS that’s drawn him back.  In his spare time, Brett is head sensei at the Spokane Washington Judo Club, teaches judo mostly to adults now, but has taught it to blind kids, as well.  Brett, welcome to FSCast.

BRETT LEWIS:  Thank you, Glen.  This is, you know, it’s kind of funny because we’ve talked about your podcast for years, and I think this is actually what prompts me to now go back and listen to your old podcasts.

GLEN:  This has prompted me actually to learn a bit about you in areas that I didn’t know about, including the fact that you were on the U.S. Paralympic team for judo, and many other things that we will get into.

BRETT:  I thought I talked enough about judo.  But I can, you know...

GLEN:  You did talk about it.  What I didn’t realize was the Paralympic part.

BRETT:  Ah, yeah, no.  I was on the Paralympic team twice, in ‘92 and 2000, and took silver both times, actually.

GLEN:  Was judo something you started doing when you were young?

BRETT:  It was.  I started when I was seven, so a little bit after I went blind.  And, you know, part of the thing is that my mother was very involved when I went blind.  She went down to Portland State University and got certified as a teacher of the blind.  And as a result, came to the school district where I was because they were not mainstreaming kids at the time.  And she said, “Look, if I’m willing to spend every day in the school, you know, where my son’s going to be a second grader, will you keep him mainstreamed?”  And this is relevant to your question about judo, just in the sense that she, you know, also thought, “Oh, you need to be involved in this and that.”  And one of the things was some kind of physical activity.  And when I was seven, she looked around and said, “Oh, I think you should be able to do judo.”  So I went and did judo.  And that sort of started me doing judo.  And it’s been one of those things that I’ve done now ever since.

GLEN:  From a practical standpoint, what does it mean to do judo?

BRETT:  It’s similar to wrestling, but the goal is to throw somebody on their back with force and control.  If you can throw them on their back cleanly, that is winning the match.  If there’s – you don’t manage to throw them on their back with enough force or control, or they land on their side, or you just knock them down, those kinds of things, you do mat work, which is similar to wrestling, but you’re allowed to choke people and put pressure on the elbows to cause them to submit.

GLEN:  How much of the not hurting someone is from the person who’s performing the moves, and how much is it from the person who’s receiving them?

BRETT:  We spend a lot of time teaching people to fall in judo.  And so there is this element of you keeping yourself safe, learning to fall, not doing things like putting your hands on the floor to try and catch yourself.  That can be dangerous, those sorts of things.  There is an element, of course, of the person who’s throwing you, they have to have control.  I’ve always felt that it’s much safer to do judo with people that have done it a long time than those who are just starting out.  They’re always a little scary.

GLEN:  Is it fundamentally different for someone who’s blind?

BRETT:  I don’t know that it’s fundamentally different for someone who’s blind.  I think it’s fundamentally different from most other activities that blind people engage in.  And maybe this isn’t true for everyone who’s blind.  But certainly for me, I spend a lot of my life being constrained, and you have to be careful, and I don’t hurry too much because I don’t want to run into something, or I don’t engage fully in almost any activity.

And the nice part about judo is that you can.  You can go out there, and you can really put as much effort into it as you like.  And the playing field is pretty level.  And so in that sense, you know, I think it’s fundamentally a little bit different than other activities for people that are blind.  We spend a lot of time teaching people that can see not to look at their opponent.  So we always have people that start out, and they say things like, “Oh, I’ve got to look down at that other person’s feet because I want to know where they’re going to step.”  And if you’re blind, you at least don’t have to get over that problem.

GLEN:  So it’s not an advantage to look.

BRETT:  No, often it’s just distracting.  You can feel where people’s feet are, where their body is.  You have a grip on someone throughout, you know, when you’re actually competing with them, and you can feel where their body is.  You have a pretty good understanding of where their feet, their hips, their shoulders, all those things are located without having to see them.

GLEN:  You teach mostly adults.  And judging from how blind people are perceived in society, do you have that same perception problem with some of your new students who don’t necessarily know how to deal with a blind guy?

BRETT:  Oh, all the time.  It’s funny.  You see it.  You see it all the time.  We have someone who comes in, and they’re always a little hesitant.  You know, I’m thinking in particular – in fact, he’s one of my assistant instructors now.  But he was, when I first met him, he was a police officer on the SWAT team and all those things.  And he was very, you know, kind of your stereotypic, in shape, really tough guy.  And he and I would work out together.  And I think there’s nothing that really makes people take you seriously quite as much as that kind of physical interaction where they’re not able to just throw you around.

Having said that, there’s often this sort of element of someone wants to be nice to you to start out with.  I know in a number of judo tournaments I’ve been to, you’ll go out and – this happened to me when I was 17.  We had a tournament, and one of the people I was facing called over someone from our club and asked them, “Is he really going to be doing judo?”  And the guy with me said, “Yes, of course he is.”  So we went out there and I managed to throw him in the first 15 seconds.  It was outstanding.  I obviously still remember it this number of years later.  But it was nice because he came up afterward, and he’s like, “You know, I had no idea that you would actually be a match.  I thought it would just be, I was going to be nice to someone.”  He didn’t put it quite that way, but that’s the take-home that I got from it anyway.

GLEN:  Do you have any idea why judo has been so inclusive as a sport?  Because there are so many other areas in society where people panic when a blind person arrives.

BRETT:  You know, I don’t really know other than I think it’s been part of the refereeing course for judo.  So when you become a certified referee, part of it is you, you know, here’s how you deal with a blind competitor.  And I think that at least gives people, I mean, you still get hesitation.  You still get, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” those kinds of things.  But it’s something that, you know, there’s this expectation that you’ve at least heard about it and know, you know, at least roughly what to do.

GLEN:  What about academics for you?  Were you on sort of a math-science kick early on?

BRETT:  I was.  I got my undergraduate degree in math.  It was math and computational science is what it was called at the time.  When I was going to college, I went to Stanford, and they didn’t have a computer science degree at the time.  They just had this math and computational sciences.  And so, you know, it was what I was interested in.  I was good at math through high school.  And then you get to college and it’s, you know, wait a minute, I don’t have any books in any accessible format.  I have readers and, you know, trying to read math.  How do you deal with linear algebra?  Okay, we have this matrix and it’s, you know, got 10 rows and 10 columns.  And now you have a reader reading all of those digits, for example.  So it was really challenging in that sense.

And you know, this was sort of back when technology was getting there.  I mean, I had an Apple IIc computer, I think, at the time.  And I had a, I can’t remember what it was called, the big, it looked like sort of a miniature record player that you carried around that you could do brailling on.

GLEN:  Not a VersaBraille.

BRETT:  This was sort of an early version of the VersaBraille, I think.  I think the VersaBraille was a nicer version than the one I had.

GLEN:  Oh, okay.

BRETT:  And so, yeah, I mean, I was on that sort of math and science track.  It was what I was interested in.  And then I ended up in college.  You could do an extra year of undergraduate, but they would give you a master’s degree at the end.  So you could take classes, sort of starting in your junior year, you could start taking master’s degree classes at the same time.  And that was in something called Engineering Economic Systems at the time.  I think it’s now been rolled into the Operations Research department.  So again, a lot of applied math.  In my particular case, a lot of stuff with regard to decision analysis at the time.

GLEN:  So no computer classes?

BRETT:  Well, it was – I made it through a lot of applied math, and then I started taking the accelerated class of Pascal programming, and then kind of moved on to, you know, C and C++ and Smalltalk and Ada and Prolog, and I can’t remember what else I took as an undergraduate, something like that.

GLEN:  And could you do it yourself?  Did you have access to at least something that would let you connect as a terminal?

BRETT:  I did.  This was the braille display I was talking about.  And it worked, you know, reasonably well at the time.  But brailling everything was hard.  And you know, some of it didn’t work as well as you’d like.  But at the time it was, in some sense, way more accessible than, you know, many of my other classes.  I mean, just straight math classes, for example, were much more complicated in that sense.  You know, you take ordinary differential equations, and how do you write out those equations?  Right?  And you start doing the math, and it’s like, there’s no good way to represent all that.  I mean, yes, there was Nemeth Code, but it didn’t translate well into something you could print and, you know, all those kinds of things.

GLEN:  So did you end up dictating a lot of stuff?

BRETT:  No, mostly I ended up writing stuff out in sort of long form.  And, you know, even math, a lot of it I would write out as, you know, as many symbols as I could in that sense.  But it was a challenge.  And that’s one reason that I think I was drawn to the computer science stuff is, you know, it was accessible, and you could really make it work.

GLEN:  Who gave you your first job?

BRETT:  My first summer job that was really related to sort of something meaningful was, I was, you know, I was studying math, and a friend of mine, his mother worked at Hewlett-Packard here in Spokane, where I was growing up, and she was their statistician.  And she said, “Oh, you’re studying, you know, probability and statistics and stuff in college right now.  Do you want to come and spend a summer doing, you know, an analysis of our soldering process and seeing why we’re having all these circuit boards that aren’t working?”  And it was the very first time that I had had an experience of going into a job and working, you know, all day.

But really, when I got out of college, you know, I’d finished college, and I’d been applying to a number of jobs.  And one of the places, I mean, there’s a whole bunch of stories related to applying to different jobs and so on.  But the one that really got me is the job that I got, the person who was in charge, his name was David Martin-McCormick, and he was really interested in trying to hire someone who was blind to work for the government, to work for him, because he was responsible for something called Estimations at the time, which was really, it was part of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and it was trying to estimate military forces around the world.  And he needed somebody who could do computer science kinds of things.

And he was great to work for because he really was, you know, hoping that I would work out.  And so he was accommodating in that sense.  But he also was willing to give me other things to do.  And he was the person who was largely responsible for me getting a job later on, working at the U.S. Mission to NATO, doing the conventional forces in Europe stuff.

GLEN:  What was it like moving to Europe?  Did you move alone?

BRETT:  No.  My wife and I moved.  And I was really fortunate to, you know, that I wasn’t moving by myself because it made it much easier.  Moving there, well, moving there was definitely a challenge because I didn’t have any connection with any kind of orientation and mobility services or anything because it was just, you know, hey, you’re working for the U.S. Mission.  So we went and, you know, someone helped us find an apartment; but then it was figuring out the buses to get to work every day.

And one of the challenges in Belgium, and for any person who’s blind, and maybe it’s gotten better, but certainly back in the ‘90s, people love their dogs, and they didn’t love to pick up after their dogs.  And so it always, you know, it was one of those things where I was wearing a suit to work, and nice shoes, and I kept thinking, am I going to make it today without finding something that someone’s dog has decided to leave on the sidewalk?

The other challenge, of course, is, you know, my wife could walk places with me, and she was great about that and made it much, much easier.  But she couldn’t go into the parts of NATO that were secure.  When I worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency it wasn’t as bad because I didn’t have a security clearance when I first started, and so I had to be escorted everywhere anyway for like nine months.  So it wasn’t an issue.  But at the U.S. Mission in NATO, you know, it was one of those things where I just sort of winged it for the first few days, walking around with people who were showing me places.  And you know, it worked out over time.  But it was, it was – that was probably the biggest challenge from an orientation sort of perspective.

GLEN:  Would you have ever expected that you would be working on access technology?

BRETT:  I certainly didn’t for the longest time, I mean, have that expectation; right?  I mean, I remember starting out, and access was always a challenge, right, through college and so on.  The time I remember it really being a focus was once we had Windows 3.1.  And I was using Slimware Window Bridge at the time.  And I was taking a test in Microsoft Word, and it would just hang every five minutes.  It was just terrible.  And at that point I started looking into sort of different alternatives for access technology and everything.  And that’s sort of really what moved me to looking at JAWS at the time.

And I remember, you know, first installing JAWS for Windows and, you know, incrementally getting more and more involved in things like scripting, understanding how that worked and so on.  And then I wrote an extension because I needed to do software development in Visual Studio.  And I think that’s when I first talked to Chris Hofstader at Freedom Scientific.  And he said, you know, do you want to come and work for us?  So that was really the transition to access technology.  And I’ve been a bit in and out of that, as you know, over the last 20 years.

GLEN:  So what is it that has kept you working on accessibility for all these years?

BRETT:  When I first started at Freedom Scientific, I was involved with the support for Firefox and really getting a web browser other than Internet Explorer to be accessible.  And then I left and worked on something else.  And when I came back, I was really involved in web accessibility and, you know, ARIA 1.0 and making sure JAWS supported all those web standards.  And I think the fact that it’s been a continuous challenge has been what has been motivating for my time at Vispero, you know, trying to keep up with the changing standards, all the things that a web author wants to do, even though it violates all the standards.

And then that sort of prompted me to reflect on, you know, what motivates all this interest and time and effort and everything on the web.  And it’s not really unique to the web.  But I think, of all the places that I’ve worked, there’s nothing as – most jobs don’t have the impact that Vispero does.  JAWS has such a huge impact on everybody’s lives on a day-to-day basis that it’s a much more meaningful place to work, and accessibility is a much more meaningful field to work in than anywhere else that I’ve worked.

GLEN:  You were at Freedom for quite a while with lots of blind employees.  And then you went off to Twitter.  I guess it’s no secret that you went to Twitter.  What was the experience like of going to a company where accessibility wasn’t necessarily top of mind for the company as a whole?

BRETT:  There were a number of employees at Twitter where having an accessible product was definitely a top priority for them.  They were very concerned about that sort of thing.  Having said that, it was a company where accessibility, you know, for a lot of its internal systems had just not ever been a consideration.  As far as I know, I’m the only blind employee that Twitter ever had.  And I talked to my manager right before I started, and I went and I got a Mac because Twitter was all Mac.  And I spent six weeks trying to learn the Mac, and I thought, oh, I’m pretty prepared.  I’ll get out there.  It’ll be okay.

The first day I start using it, and they said, “Oh, by the way, 90% of our communication is all going to be on Slack.  So I hope you’re comfortable with Slack.  And we entirely use Google, you know, Google suite of workplace kinds of things.  So Google Docs, Google Sheets, all that kind of stuff.  So I hope that all works with the Mac.”

And the first five weeks or something of Twitter was an onboarding process where you’d go to engineering classes.  And so, you know, it was, “Okay, now we’re going to teach you Scala.  And part of the Scala class is we’re going to, you know, go into breakout rooms, you know, all done remotely.  And you now need to have some tool to interact with Scala.  You know, it’s a command line, at least, kind of thing on the Mac.  You could run their terminal program.”

But, you know, I guess what it really emphasized for me, if I were to summarize it, is there’s the technical definition of accessibility.  Like, yes, maybe all of these tools individually are accessible.  But making them usable and efficient is hard.  And it’s hard to learn them all.  And to get to the point where you can interact, you know, even close to what your peers are interacting with each other.  So it was a horrible first few months, quite honestly.

GLEN:  And then it just, I mean, you probably got used to it, a certain amount of muscle memory after a while, and you’ve done it enough, and slowly you get faster.

BRETT:  That’s certainly part of it.  The other part of it is you learn to – what the right tools are; right?  So you know, for example, when you go and you can, they say, well, you can do programming in IntelliJ.  And you can do programming, you know, maybe in Android Studio or whatever.  And then, you know, there’s no other blind user to go and ask, “Hey, have you ever used this?  How would you do it?”

I started doing development in VS Code on the Mac, for example.  And then I, it was funny, we had someone else who was blind who was interviewing for a position at Twitter.  And they said, “Hey, do you mind talking to this person?”  And so I ended up talking to them and, you know, just about what it was like to work at Twitter and all this other stuff.  And they said, “You know, my husband’s blind, and I know he does code, VS Code development over SSH.”  And so I’m, you know, spending half my time while they’re talking about this interview talking to her husband, and he’s saying, oh, yeah, you can just set up an SSH client.  And, I mean, that was huge because then I could use Windows to do VS Code development and use SSH into the Mac to do a lot of the, you know, any kind of compilation or whatever.

GLEN:  But you needed to have the thread to follow.

BRETT:  That’s right.  And you needed to have that kind of, I mean, tribal knowledge probably makes it sound grander than it is, but you learn from everybody.  And the only other people that are going to have blind specific knowledge is people that are blind.  You know, people can tell you, oh, read the shortcut keys for Slack.  But until you talk to somebody who’s blind, and they explain how it works, and “Hey, by the way, this is really useful,” you know, that’s a different story.

GLEN:  One of the things that I think several of us were very pleased about was that you had spent so much time with Google Docs, and with Slack, and other things that we’ve used more, you know, testing it to make sure that accessibility works rather than really using it to necessarily get a lot of work done.  And so I think that’s a nice perspective for you to have returned with.

BRETT:  You know, one of the things that’s really been difficult is there are so many tools out there that any JAWS user will encounter.  And everyone who works here doesn’t necessarily use those tools.  And as you said, it really makes you sympathetic, not only as I was saying before to the web developers, but it also makes you sympathetic to the users that are just like, okay, technically this application is accessible, but is it really usable, and highlighting that distinction.  Can I go to a web page, and it takes me 55 tabs to get to where I want to be; or I can directly navigate there.  How can we expedite or really improve usability as opposed to just straight accessibility is probably a good summary.

GLEN:  Well, thank you, Brett.  This was fun.  May you stay and not depart quite so soon again.  I think it was 10 years before your most recent departure.

BRETT:  It was, yes.

GLEN:  But it seemed like only a moment.

BRETT:  Yeah, well.  Well, thank you, Glen.  I appreciate that.  It’s definitely been a really good experience to be back at Vispero.

GLEN:  Great to have you, and great to have you on FSCast.  If you want to get in touch with Brett about Judo or anything else, feel free to use me as your emissary.  Write to fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  An address, by the way, which is equally willing to accept Power Tip submissions, questions, concerns, ideas for future guests.  I’m always happy to hear from you:  fscast@vispero.com.

Signing Off on FSCast 232

GLEN:  And with that, Episode 232 is history for June of 2023.  I’m Glen Gordon.  See you next month.


edigitaltranscription.com  •  06/26/2023  •  edigitaltranscription.com