Chris Ashton

dai11y 02/08/2022

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The Hidden History of Screen Readers

This lengthy but approachable article by The Verge covers the history of JAWS and NVDA.

Ted Henter lost his sight in a car accident in 1978. Losing his job as a racing driver and mechanical engineer, he studied computer science, having to get volunteers to read programming books and terminal outputs to him.

In his first computing job, Ted got his first “talking computer” (software created by Maryland Computer Services), which read one character at a time. This meant Ted could finally work without assistance. In the next version, it could read one word at a time, and Ted became the most known user, regularly calling the company for tech support.

Ted was sent on a business trip to Chicago to train a businessman, Bill Joyce, in using the software. The two became friends and in 1987 created “Henter-Joyce”, releasing their own DOS screen reader called JAWS (Job Access With Speech). It had Braille support, dual cursors and a scripting language for users.

As companies moved from DOS to Windows, a graphical interface, screen reader development became more challenging. Henter-Joyce released JAWS for Windows in 1995. Microsoft ended up buying the source code and created its own native version, but that eventually went nowhere, and JAWS retained the majority of the market share all the way through to 2019.

The price of JAWS – $1000 for a home license – was prohibitive, especially to the 89% of people with vision loss from low and middle income countries. In 2019, NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) overtook JAWS in popularity. It is free and open source, developed by two friends from Australia: Michael Curran and Jamie Teh.

Michael started it as a prototype in 2006. Within a year, Mozilla funded Michael to attend the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, where Michael met like-minded enthusiasts. Michael and Jamie then set up the NV Access nonprofit to govern the project long-term. Initially viewed as ‘fine for home use, but not professional use’, NVDA has come a long way, with contributors from all over the world.

The article contains lots of useful statistics. For example, in 2020, the estimated number of blind people worldwide was 49.1 million, comparable to the population of Spain or South Korea. An additional 255 million people have moderate to severe visual impairment. And in a recent Stackoverflow survey of developers, 1,142 people – approximately 1.7% of total participants – replied, “I am blind / have difficulty seeing.”

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