Accessibility training is important too, not just usability.

By Robert Kingett.

Ever since 2017 or so I’ve been noticing a huge increase in accessibility. A few examples that are coming to mind are, well, all about blindness accessibility, partly because I am, indeed, totally blind now. A few of these are, EA developing their own accessibility portal so gamers with disabilities can know what game has what accessibility feature, as well as, how to access it, Slack suddenly caring about accessibility all of a sudden when before it was a kind of “that’s a neat idea LOL” sentiment I’ve been hearing from them, and, Discord finally starts taking accessibility seriously.

With all these advances though, obviously there’s going to be some growing pains. I’d like to demonstrate that today. I know I’m just one user out of many, but I think this kind of growing pain is something to seriously consider, especially when you publicly talk about how accessible you are.

I was having a small issue with Microsoft Office Word that I didn’t notice before. Actually, maybe it has always been there, and I’ve just never realized it, but I was writing a piece of fiction and every time a sentence started with a quote, the first letter of the sentence wasn’t capitalized. Like this.

“john didn’t know what to do, so I guess that’s why he took the money.”

I’ve been using Office 365 for years now and just now realized this. I don’t know why I just realized it, but, I did. I use auto capitalization because of my cerebral palsy. Sometimes, hitting the shift key causes me to misspell other things so I wanted auto capitalization to capitalize beginning of sentences inside of quotes. So, I set out to ask the Microsoft Disability Answer Desk to see if they had a creative solution. Google searches lead to pages upon pages of turning this feature off, but nothing about my current issue. In my quest, I noticed that Microsoft Office Word wasn’t the only processor having this issue. OpenOffice and LibreOffice still have this same issue. I found this solution for not capitalizing after a colon, though, but that didn’t help me.

For those not in the know, the disability answer desk is there to provide support to people using adaptive technology. This video shows a general overview of it, but the tasks look very simple..

I mean, I’m pretty sure people should be calling the disability answer desk for basic inquiries. In my previous experiences of calling disability specific contacts, their knowledge level is pretty basic, which is fine. I’m not faulting them for that. I just wanted to see if they would have a solution.

There’s a few reasons why I call disability numbers though, rather than general help numbers.

  1. I get to skip the awkward explanations. I don’t have to explain NVDA or JAWS a lot of the time.
  2. We’re pretty much going through things step by step, so I can follow along. This is important. If a sighted tech support guy is using the mouse I only catch snippets of where he’s at, and yes, I do assume that every tech support guy is a dashing man who will whisk me off my feet after the call ends, because I’m a seeking man. When they’re jiggling their mouse in a tech support way, I usually can’t follow where they are going or what they are doing to my files. Disability tech support people generally don’t have this problem. Even if they use the mouse, they take their time, allow me to navigate via keyboard if necessary.

With all of that said, I decided to try the 24/7 chat feature on Microsoft’s disability answer desk page. I mean, obviously, it’s much easier for me to type than to talk. Although, the one time I called through the Be My Eyes app on my iPhone, the tech guy was patient enough to where I could get all my words and stuff out.

I clicked into the online chat, waited for about a minute, and some guy, or gal, I couldn’t tell which, named Joseph, took my chat. After going through his script, can you verify your information, etc. Determining what screen reader, I was using, NVDA, and what version of windows 10 I was using, the latest one, I explained my problem.

I was hoping he wouldn’t need to remote in, that he could just look up a Macro or something to fix my issue, but we had to remote in. Rather, they, had to remote in, while I sat back and munched on cookies.

The first odd thing arose when I learned that NVDA wasn’t reading any of the remote programs dialog boxes. I had to turn on Narrator and use scan mode to read what the buttons were, which, honestly? In my opinion, was a little lacking in accessibility. Maybe it’s because I’m an accessibility prude, but I shouldn’t have to switch screen readers just, so we can do a remote session. After initiating the connection, he opened up the previous chat window for me, using his mouse. Okay! I thought. He’s sighted. Interesting.

That’s when my eyebrows rose. They kept rising too, the more instructions he gave me. “Now that we’re connected,” he said. “I want you to click on the start button, open Microsoft Office Word, and then click on it.”

I immediately became aware of his language and told him I was using NVDA, a screen reader, so could he give me instructions using keyboard commands instead? It was a longshot, but I was, after all, chatting with the disability answer desk. I didn’t want to explain the whole keyboard navigation thing to yet another sighted person.

“Did you click on it yet?” He asked.

“You mean, did I hit enter on it yet?” I retorted in the chat window.

“Yes, did you click on it yet?” I was really stunned. More importantly, I didn’t know how to ask for a blind or visually impaired customer service representative without sounding like a complete twat.

“Now,” the support guy was saying, “when Microsoft Office Word opens, click the File button at the top left with your mouse, and then click on options, near the bottom.”

“You mean,” I corrected again, because at this point, I wanted to roll my eyes so hard they’d start a tsunami. “You mean, press the alt key on my keyboard, then hit the down arrow key until I get to options, and then hit my enter key?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, he kept telling me a series of mouse actions to do after telling him, multiple times, that I was a screen reader user, operating a screen reader, and would be using a screen reader throughout this chat, so if he could start talking to me in keyboard commands, I’d love him more.

In short, that never happened. He didn’t fix my problem. He basically told me that’s how Microsoft changed Microsoft Office Word now, so I basically had to live with it. I guess I’d need to start getting into a new habit, I guess. Starting dialog without quotes then going back and adding them in, like I did with this article.

The main point I want to drive home here is, while making sure things and services can be used by people with disabilities there needs to be some disability training happening too. Or, even, better yet, having actual disabled people operating these centers because there’s a ton of tech savvy disabled people out there, just as I’m sure, rests a number of tech frightened disabled people.

Maybe I want to live in a utopia, but my ideal scenario would go something like this. I ask for a member of the team who knows a screen reader better and I’m transferred. I don’t know how this could be done on chat, via a chat box, but I’m sure anything is possible it’s like Dorthey clicking her heals three times and then ending up back home. It should be like magic. The tech support person would ask me what screen reader I’m using and then interact via that screen reader, unless there’s something that’s inaccessible, then they can just do the mouse thing. Or, better yet, when giving me instructions, give me keyboard command instructions. Not instructions intended for sighted users.

I don’t know why this happened. I couldn’t find any definitive answer. Let’s compare a help support ticket I received a few days ago, though. Slack. We were working through an issue in the desktop program. While slack isn’t as usable as Microsoft is I do feel they are doing their best to improve. In an ideal world, they would be just as usable as Microsoft is right now, right this very minute, but I’m not a wizard. I wish I were though. An accessibility wizard.

Anyway, we were emailing back and forth about some unlabeled check boxes and otherwise. I forget the guy’s name, I think it was Joel? Was telling me how to turn a setting on. He did this, all, using keyboard commands. Not once did he say, click here, click there, click here. He even knew how to switch review cursors in NVDA and that’s an experience I wish I had at Microsoft. Bonus, he didn’t ask for me to send a screenshot over to him after telling him I used NVDA. In fact, we were pondering about how to send audio files to each other through Zendesk.

I’ve often wondered where this accessibility awareness comes from at Slack. While their compatibility and usability aren’t the greatest, yet, I’ve never had a support person relay keyboard commands back to me, on any of these accessibility lines, ever. Slack has a guide on how to navigate the web interface with a screen reader and they also have keyboard commands listed, but this old blog post about accessible design is the only document I could find regarding their commitment to accessibility. It makes a world of difference when I can get the help I need without having to interpret mouse directions into keyboard commands. Can I do it? Certainly. I know enough about NVDA to do that. I’ve been doing that for years though, even when I was legally blind. I’ve had to contend. Honestly? I don’t want to contend anymore. I’ve done it for far too long with lines that are supposed to be for disabled customers. The tech support is free, yes, but still, I should have a far better idea of the kind of experience I’m going to get when I am calling a dedicated disability support number or email address.

Apple is another company that comes to mind. While I can’t find any numbers, I can briefly tell you about experiences calling their disability support line. It’s been hit or miss. Many accessibility agents have given me instructions for when VoiceOver is turned off, while others knew the screen reader intimately and were even blind themselves.

Now that accessibility is becoming more profitable, I wonder how many years it will take for adaptive technology awareness to reach even this capacity? When am I going to call a disability support line, tell them I use a screen reader, and then wait a few seconds for an expert screen reader user to come on the line?

It can’t happen fast enough, in my opinion.