Leasey and the NVDA Question.
When a product is as successful as Leasey, which works exclusively with the JAWS screen-reader from Freedom Scientific, you are always going to get people who sneer and are combative. There are those who will say, “you are profiteers”, “You are excluding a large sector of the blind community”, “You are failing to work with other screen-reader developers”.
When these kind of remarks or insinuations occur, the best thing to do is to say nothing at all. We know that our opening hours for example extend until 10 PM even at weekends, so as to provide support to people in America and Canada. We could easily down tools on weekdays at 5 PM UK time and say, “OK, if you do not call in UK office hours, you’re stuck”. We don’t do that because we care about our customers.
But to return to the thrust of this article, we are getting an increasing number of enquiries from people who ask why products such as Leasey and J-Say, (which are already used by hundreds of people around the world), will not function with the freely available NVDA screen-reader. Why is it always JAWS? The reality is very simple to grasp.
Before I get to answering that question, I must say this. The developers of JAWS, Freedom Scientific, have always been extremely helpful to us on every single occasion we have approached them. They do not undertake the work for us, and nor should they. We would not learn from the experience if they did. But when a problem has arisen with JAWS, or we are struggling with something particularly tricky, they have done everything in their power to ensure we receive information in a timely manner so we can move forward. That assistance comes from the Chief technical Officer downwards. No staff member at Freedom Scientific has ever turned us away or said they cannot help.
In return, and in fairness to people in the blind community who do not have one of our products, I personally devote a lot of time each week to ensuring that I submit quality bug reports to the JAWS beta testing team. I've also worked extensively on a one-to-one basis with some of the JAWS developers to provide extensive testing of something specific so it can be corrected. This, I hope, ensures that JAWS is as good as it can be.
Take the issue of Skype support. Through Leasey, we feel we provide very good quality access to Skype. But that does not mean that I will not try, through bug reporting, to improve the default support for Skype and JAWS. It’s only fair, and it means we give something back to the blindness community.
When the Leasey product was first conceived in 2014, we were immediately conscious of the NVDA screen-reader. While we accepted that we would need to invest time learning another programming language to facilitate access to our product through NVDA, we were very prepared to take on that challenge, not just for Leasey, but also for our many voice recognition users too who use our J-Say product. This would bring NVDA to people who could not use a keyboard even if they wanted to.
Let me explain the core requirements for Leasey development with NVDA.
The product could not be open source. While NVDA is theoretically open source, (meaning it can be modified by a user), we are a commercial company. We do not want people to examine or modify the source code. That would be unthinkable.
We would want to modify core components of NVDA so as to improve upon the quality of access people receive. Our recent demonstration for Tek Talk of how we have changed the support for the Outlook calendar and JAWS is a very good example of this. We do not believe that a literal screen interpretation of Windows programs is a good thing. Obviously our users feel the same else they would not be buying the product, and they do so in good number.
We would want to call upon core functions of NVDA which were already in place from Dynamic Link Libraries. That is a technical term, but put very simply, this would mean that we would want to send messages to NVDA through Leasey or J-Say to cause the screen-reader to perform specific actions.
We wrote to the developers of NVDA on 9 August 2014, setting out the above requirements and also that there would be a good possibility we would need technical assistance.
NVDA responded. The staff were very friendly in their approach, and were willing to provide technical assistance on a monthly support contract or case by case basis. We had no difficulty with this as they are a charitable organisation. But it became clear that we were immediately going to run into both legal and philosophical difficulties.
From a legal and technical standpoint, In accordance with NVDA's license agreement, all NVDA plugins and drivers themselves must be licensed under the GNU General Public License 2.0. Among other things, this means they must be open source. There are a few exceptions to this, but they would not completely meet our requirements. We would not be able to directly call NVDA events for example, or undertake much of the other work we would be required to do.
In closing the correspondence, they said this: “it does seem that in your case, you would run into legal difficulties or at least find it infeasible to work around them.”
Certainly, we are by no means being critical of NVDA’s approach. It is a fine screen-reader, it is of value to an enormous number of people, and obviously they feel their approach is completely justified, and so it may be. But that is not the way we think. While JAWS may be expensive, it does give us the flexibility to do what we need to, and at least we can say we have tremendous cooperation from Freedom Scientific if and when we need it. We can only work with the flexible tools we have at our disposal and with the cooperation of the developers. If that cooperation is not forthcoming, there is little we can do.
All of this said, we are (when time allows) willing to work alongside any screen-reader developers to bring our products to the community who need them. But we would like people to very clearly understand that we not only had the foresight to contact NVDA before the project got under way, but there are also exceptionally good reasons why we prefer to work with Freedom Scientific and JAWS. Freedom Scientific see the value in our products, they are fully aware that we are a small business, yet they are still very keen to assist us. That clearly demonstrates their total commitment to assist blind people, both from a user and development standpoint.
I hope that clarifies the position and demonstrates our forward thinking in this regard.