An Address to the National Federation of the Blind Convention 2014

The following speech was given by Michael Curran on the 6th of July 2014, to attendees at the National Federation of the Blind’s 2014 convention in Orlando Florida. NV Access wishes to thank the NFB for providing funding for Michael’s attendance.

The NVDA screen reading software is changing the lives of blind and vision impaired people across the globe, by providing them with a free alternative to commercial screen readers, that may be either too expensive or not available in their location or language. It is enabling these people to independently use computers to produce written content, read news, socialise, shop and bank online, and, most importantly, actively participate in education and employment.

It is developed by users, for users.
NVDA is used by both the young and old.
It is used at home, at school, at university, in the workplace and on the go.
It supports over 40 languages.
It can be run portably, with out the need for installation.

NVDA is open source software. We have received contributions of code, documentation and translations from over 140 people from across the world.

NVDA is downloaded roughly 60000 times each release, with over 17000 users depending on the product each and every day, spanning over 160 countries. As NVDA is free for anyone, the greatest impact is for people living in developing countries where it is often impossible to access a commercial screen reader. However, even in the developed world, NVDA is having a significant impact. The second highest country for NVDA usage is the United States, suggesting that even here, there are people for whom NVDA is a necessity, due to the prohibitive cost of other products.

Over the past several years, we have continued to strive to ensure that NVDA is a fully featured solution for not only those who have no other option, but also for those who simply like choice.

For anyone who hasn’t looked at NVDA in the last two years or so, some of the major changes and improvements have been:
* A repackaged download, allowing you to install or create a portable copy, all from one file.
* Automatic updates, ensuring that you always have the latest and greatest NVDA when it becomes available.
* Support for NVDA add-ons, allowing you to add optional features created by others in the community.
* Support for Asian character input and improved support for reading right-to-left languages such as Arabic.
* Support for Microsoft Powerpoint, allowing you to both read and edit Powerpoint presentations. Special thanks goes to the NFB and several other blindness agencies, for contributing financially to this particular project.
* Microsoft Word enhancements including: support for graphics, form fields, revisions and comments.
* A Configuration profiles manager, allowing you to create and switch between multiple configurations for different applications or situations.

Other developments have included: support for touch screens on Windows 8; computer braille input; support for many more braille displays; customisation of keyboard, braille display and touch commands; enhancements and fixes to web page and pdf content; stability fixes; and much more.

As a small taste of what is coming for the next release, Some enhancements you can look forward to particularly in regards to Microsoft Office are:
* Support for the Outlook Calendar
* less verbose reading in the Outlook inbox and other message lists.
* a new command to read the current comment in both Microsoft Word and Excel
* Microsoft Word specific enhancements including:
* reporting of paragraph indenting
* Reporting of distance from the left edge when pressing tab
* Feedback in speech and braille for most formatting shortcut keys (bold, italic, underline, alignment, etc.)
* Automatic column and row header reading in tables where the author has specified headers compatible with Jaws.
* Improved automatic column and row header reading for Excel including setting headers for multiple regions and per-worksheet storage compatible with Jaws

Some other features that will be available in the not too distant future are:
* Improved support for Rich text editing in web browsers, Further enhancing the accessibility of products such as Google Docs, Office 365, and other content editors.
* Access to complex math equations in web browsers and Microsoft Office, Via Design Science’s Math Player Alpha, allowing for meaninful navigation within equations, with feedback in both speech and braille.

In conversations almost 10 years ago,my close friend James Teh and I talked as blind people, about the possibility of a fully featured free Screen Reader for Windows. Due to the high cost of commercial products, there was unfortunately a fair amount of illegal usage of the existing commercial products. Given the importance of access to computers, it was difficult for many to resist doing this. However, both of us realized that in addition to the obvious legal and ethical reasons against software piracy, this approach simply ignores the underlying problems of screen reader cost and availability. Blind people, regardless of their economic status, should not have to break the law just to be able to use computers and gain independence.

The idea of a free screen reader was not new. There were several free screen readers for Linux and Apple at that time was introducing VoiceOver to the Mac. There were even some free options for Windows, but they were either extremely limited or abandoned. Another group had a similar dream to ours, but their project seemed to never get off the ground.

In April 2006, While just out of university,And, also out of a job,I decided to start working on the NVDA screen reading software. I certainly wasn’t the best programmer around,But previous life experience, And participation in Blind Citizens Australia taught me,That if you want or need something,Someone, has got to start it some time. Although perhaps a little skeptical about the chance of success at first, James Teh joined me on the project in July that year, and together we have worked as lead developers ever since.

There were many reasons we developed NVDA as a free and open source project. The first was because this enforced the ideal that it would always be freely available to anyone who needed it. Second, based on our previous experience with open source software, we knew that a project of this size and complexity could really benefit from input and contributions from the community. Finally, we believed that for too long, screen reading techniques had been locked up in the proprietary world. Each time a new screen reader project was started, programmers had to re-invent the wheel. There was no reference, no baseline from which to start. NVDA would be a chance to open this up and allow the blind and vision impaired community to access and learn from the code, knowledge and techniques that helped them access computers each and every day.

Although we understood well the issues around screen reader cost for ourselves and others in similar situations to our own, we did not appreciate at first just how much more of an impact NVDA would make on the blind in developing or non-English speaking countries. In these countries, commercial screen readers can be up to 4 times the price that we are used to, and sometimes the commercial screen readers are outdated or just not available in their particular language. This further spurred our efforts and led to a framework enabling translation of NVDA into any language by anyone so that everyone, regardless of language, can benefit from access to computers. We realised it was now imperative that we put in place infrastructure to ensure NVDA’s long-term continuation.

In 2007, James Teh, myself, and several other blind people,founded NV Access, an Australian-based non-profit organisation to develop and promote NVDA. NV Access raises funds through grants, donations, contracts and potentially other avenues in future. Among other things, NV Access employs us to work full time on the project, provides the technical infrastructure for the website and other online services, and allows us to offer related services such as support and consulting.

NVDA is now a world renowned screen reader used by tens of thousands, but its impact reaches far beyond the direct benefits to its users. It has helped to change the landscape of an industry where fully featured, free or low cost products were previously considered an unrealistic dream. It has provided greater competition in the assistive technology space, thus driving continued development and innovation. Both NVDA and NV Access have played a significant part in pushing the accessibility industry forward, particularly in the area of web accessibility. Because NVDA is free and unrestricted, more developers are able to test with a screen reader when implementing accessibility in their products, lowering even more barriers to accessibility. All of this ensures the importance and relevance of our work now and into the future, even despite the emergence of other free options such as Window-Eyes for users of Microsoft Office.

Today, NV Access still continues to actively develop NVDA. With the rapid pace of technology developments, we must continually update NVDA to ensure compatibility with the latest versions of Windows or other popular 3rd party applications. Aside from NVDA development, we are also focusing on several other areas in order to increase awareness and uptake for those who truly need it.

In order to best achieve our mission, NV Access needs to grow as a business and be sustainable into the future. Also, we need to grow the ecosystem of services and products around NVDA. Thanks to a grant from The Nippon Foundation, we have recently hired a General Manager who is focusing specifically on these issues.

The lack of official training material and technical support is something that many people have identified as a barrier to NVDA uptake. We recognise the importance of this and are working towards a solution. The hope is to firstly have a set of official text-based training materials available in the not too distant future, with the aim of also putting in place a certification system around this training to ensure quality from those offering training in their own local communities. Ensuring the existence of training will allow the NVDA user to work more effectively with the product, get beginner users up to speed faster, and also quash a fair bit of ignorance around NVDA’s current capabilities. We are also seeking to partner with various blindness agencies, rehabilitation organisations and companies,including organisations here in the U.S,who could offer end-user technical support to NVDA users in their own communities,and around the world. We already have a corporate support model in place which allows these organisations to receive second-level technical support, training or custom development from NV Access for a monthly fee.

Another major barrier to uptake is of course the speech. NVDA comes with the eSpeak speech synthesizer built in. It is extremely responsive and can speak in many languages. I myself use espeak all the time and there are many others who also do, especially in developing countries where other synthesizers are simply not available. However, we are very much aware of the reluctance of many to use eSpeak due to its apparent robotic ormetallic nature.

Perhaps the most popular speech synthesizer among screen reader users is Nuance ETI-Eloquence. IBM also incorporated the same engine in their IBMTTS product. Unfortunately, we have been unable to license this for use with NVDA despite several attempts to negotiate with both Nuance and IBM. Furthermore, both products are considered end of life. Nuance continue to wholesale Eloquence but do not provide support or updates, while IBMTTS can no longer be purchased at all. Also perhaps more unfortunately, we are aware that a significant number of users choose to use these synthesisers illegally. NV Access certainly does not condone this practice.

One potential solution we are pursuing is attempting to restart research into formant synthesis by developing a prototype Klatt synthesizer. If successful, it could be a replacement for those who cannot adapt to eSpeak but are comfortable with the sound of Eloquence or Dectalk. Like NVDA, it is being developed as open source software, ensuring that others can contribute and that the future of the product is not dependent on just one company. The prototype is already available in English and can be found on our Extra Voices web page, under the name of NV Speech Player.

The aim of NV Access has always been to lower the economic and social barriers associated with accessing Information Technology for people who are Blind or Vision Impaired. The company is thus dedicated to the ideal that accessibility and equitable access is a right and should be available to everyone, no matter their language, location or economic status. NV Access upholds this ideal through its continuing commitment to keep NVDA freely available to all blind and vision impaired people who need it. However, in order to best achieve this ideal, we, the blindness community, must work together. We welcome open and candid discussion with all in the blindness community, including the NFB, on ways we can ensure NVDA’s continuation.

There are still many blind people in the U.S. and otherwise who don’t have access to computers or the internet,Due to screen reader availability. In a 21st century context, for some this means the inability to participate equally in education, the inability to get a job, or the inability simply to socialise.

We believe that everybody, blind or not, has a duty and a right to contribute to society in some way. We implore organisations such as the NFB to work to ensure that all blind people have the necessary tools to do so. Let us also make sure that at least some of these tools are owned and controlled by the blindness community. Access to technology is essential, and we as blind people must play a significant part in shaping the future of that access.

I would like to thank our current primary sponsors including: Adobe, The Nippon Foundation, and Google. And to also acknowledge past support from Microsoft, And especially past support from Mozilla, with whom we share many values.

Finally, I would like to thank the NFB for the opportunity to speak today,And for your support of the NVDA project.

You can find out more about NVDA or download a copy, at

Thank you.