Leopard looks great. But what if you can't see?

Despite new accessibility features in Leopard, people with disabilities are still likely to choose Windows computers over Macs.

Leopard is Apple's best-looking operating system yet, from its breezy Cover Flow file browsing to the starry-looking Time Machine backup. It's no wonder visual artists love Macs.

But how well does Leopard work for blind users?

"[Vision-impaired] people who use Macs are mostly in the category of, "My boss says we have to use Macs," or "I'm a teacher and that's what I'm stuck with,"" said Crista Earl, director of Web operations at the American Foundation for the Blind.

Among 10 million visually impaired people in the United States, at least 1.5 million use computers, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. To serve this population, Windows machines have traditionally offered more baked-in features and compatibility with third-party software and devices than Macs.

Earl, who is blind, only uses computers running Microsoft Windows. She edits documents in braille and relies upon a screen-reader application to "read" text and links aloud in Internet Explorer and other programs.

However, to serve users such as Earl, Apple has made 17 Universal Access enhancements within Leopard.

Leopard is the first operating system that can be installed using a braille display. It also supports the forms of braille used both for reading and editing. There are enhancements to the VoiceOver tool, which reads aloud text on a page in a male or female voice. Users can now move VoiceOver's preferences from one Mac to another, so they don't have to waste time configuring each new machine. In addition, VoiceOver can recognize misspelled words and jump to chunks of a Web page instead of forcing a user to wait while it reads one word at a time.

Earl said these changes are a step in the right direction, and she hopes to check them out on a friend's Mac. Mac OS X also offers some advantages over Windows for people with limited vision, such as the capability to display the screen in black and white.

"I don't mean I'd give up my Windows computer," she said. "I have work to do. It's gonna take a lot from the last time I saw VoiceOver."

Accessibility features from any vendor are usually more frustrating to use than advertised, Earl added. Part of the problem is that instead of integrating essential tools within their operating systems, Microsoft and Apple have left it up to third parties to fill in the gaps with extra, paid software.

For example, the screen readers within Windows and Mac OS X pale next to applications like JAWS or Window-Eyes. Earl wonders why the tech giants don't just buy one of the better tools, then weave it into their operating systems.

"One of the reasons things haven't gotten very far is that the companies making screen readers are constantly fighting the next battle," Earl said.

Blame the ever-evolving nature of Web site designs. Once screen-reader makers figured out how to make Adobe Acrobat accessible, for instance, Adobe Flash rendered Web pages mute to blind users. Now that more Flash sites work with screen readers, the AJAX coding of the Web 2.0 era poses new challenges.

Both the challenges in making accessibility tools and the market for them are poised to expand. More young people are suffering repetitive stress disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, while aging Baby Boomers grapple with diminished vision, hearing, and mobility.

People whose hands and arms suffer keyboard fatigue, or worse, can use speech-to-text software that types what they speak. For them, Windows builds in voice-activated dictation and commands. Leopard enables voice-activated commands only. The rich Dragon NaturallySpeaking from Nuance runs only on Windows. For Macs, the equivalent ViaVoice (or iListen, which I haven't tested) are considered less robust.

I find each of these dictation applications awkward to use. Just spend an hour with one for a few laughs as it garbles your speech.

Nevertheless, hardware and software manufacturers appear to be paying more attention to the needs of an affluent, aging population.

"A newcomer to visual impairment tends to expect, rightly, for things to be a whole lot easier than they are," Earl said. "That pressure of lots of disappointed users might make things better for everybody."

 

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