Creator Michael Curran Tells the Story of NV Access — How the Open-Source Approach to Screen-Reading Software is Making the Web Accessible to All

TL; DR: Since 2007, NV Access has empowered the blind and vision-impaired in more than 120 countries to access information on the internet through its free NVDA screen reader. We recently acknowledged the Australian organization’s passion for making the web available to all through open-source, non-visual technology, and presented NV Access with our Developers’ Choice™ Award. The nonprofit strives to keep pace with rapid technological change, and its Windows-based tool is now backed by multi-browser compatibility, consulting services, and robust customer support. And, by collaborating with major software companies, NV Access continues its mission to innovate approaches to enhance web inclusivity around the globe.

When Michael Curran was just 15, his visual impairment progressed to complete blindness. Still, Michael considered himself fortunate. Through charity funding, he was granted a computer outfitted with accessibility software that was cost prohibitive to so many others.

“It opened up the world to me in terms of being able to independently access the web and other applications,” he said.

While the commercial software had a profound impact on his life, he questioned its price, which included frequent and costly updates.

“This extra software that enabled me as a blind person to use a computer was, in many cases, more expensive than the operating system — and, indeed, sometimes more expensive than the computer itself,” he said.

Michael had been nurturing an interest in programming and development and was well aware of open-source movements in the industry. So, in April 2006, he began work on building NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) — an open-source screen-reading program that would eventually replace the commercialized software he had been using.

Michael Curran and James Teh founded NV Access with a mission to make the web accessible to the visually impaired.

Michael enlisted the help of friend and colleague James Teh, a blind man who had recently completed his degree in internet technology, and, in 2007, they founded NV Access, a nonprofit organization that would support the development of NVDA through funding and grants.

“It has definitely created many more opportunities for blind people around the world who are now able to access the web for no more cost than their sighted peers,” Michael said.

Today, the nonprofit’s free, Windows-based tool enables thousands of visually impaired users in more than 120 countries to independently access the internet. This dedication to making the web accessible to all has earned the nonprofit multiple distinctions, including HostingAdvice’s recent Developers’ Choice™ Award. Now with multi-browser compatibility, consulting services, and robust customer support, the organization is continuing its commitment to unlocking opportunities for the visually impaired.

A Windows-Based Tool Enabling Independence for Thousands of Users

NVDA works on the 32- and 64-bit versions of Microsoft Windows XP or later, supporting the use of web browsers, email, chat, and Microsoft Office products such as Word and Excel. The screen reader software can be installed directly on a computer (requiring approximately 50MB of disk space) or can be run from a USB stick, enabling users to access the software no matter where they are — at home, work, or school.

The program includes a built-in speech synthesizer available in 43 languages. As the user hovers the mouse over text, NVDA reads it and reports formatting elements such as font name, size, and style. The software offers seamless integration with support for refreshable braille displays and accessibility interfaces such as Java Access Bridge and Windows command prompts.

The open-source nature of the software means that code is accessible to anyone, enabling the developer community to contribute to its development on a global scale. But Michael told us it wasn’t easy to gain access to the software, which was previously expensive and commercialized.

“Creating a screen reader is very esoteric,” he said. “It’s not something you can go to university and learn or really even get a book about.”

According to Michael, a limited number of screen-reading products exist, and most are built by commercial, for-profit businesses.

“Whatever they created couldn’t be leveraged because we couldn’t see their code, so we had to pretty much invent everything ourselves,” he said. “That really depended on trial and error.”

Multi-Browser Compatibility Now Including Microsoft Edge

To support different browsers, NV Access had to leverage and implement compatibility with various APIs. Michael used Internet Explorer and Firefox as examples.

“The code is extremely different,” he said. “Of course, we’ve been able to abstract a lot of it after we’ve learned over the years and started to identify the patterns.”

NVDA is compatible with Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and — most recently — Microsoft Edge, which presented numerous challenges.

“We’ve had to deal with a lot of big changes in the accessibility space to support Microsoft Edge, and that’s because they’ve focused very much on security,” Michael said. “A lot of what we used in other browsers is pretty much impossible in Edge.”

Responsiveness was a primary concern, Michael said. When the nonprofit first began supporting the browser, it could take up to 1.4 seconds for the software to read a line out loud.

“As a sighted person, imagine moving the mouse and waiting 1.4 seconds for the pointer to jump,” Michael said. “That’s just unacceptable and was what we were dealing with at first.”

Michael worked hand in hand with engineers at Microsoft until a compromise was reached.

“We made changes in NVDA, they made changes in Edge,” he said. “We were able, together, to cut that time down on some machines by about six times, so the worst-case scenario is now 200 milliseconds from pressing a key to speaking a line.”

And Michael told us he is not stopping there. He noted he would like the responsiveness to get down to about 70 milliseconds, but that jump poses another huge challenge. Today’s rapidly evolving technological environment keeps the nonprofit on its toes. And, according to Michael, the team at NV Access never sits still as its purpose continues to widen.

The NV Access team is constantly in talks with working groups and works closely with web tech giants, including Microsoft, Google, Mozilla, and Yahoo.

“I think we’ve grown from being a company that was just trying to make a free screen reader so blind people could access the web to being a big part of actually finding the solutions and creating some of these new technologies in the right way,” Michael said.

Training, Consulting Services, and Robust Customer Support

NV Access provides a range of training and accessibility consulting services, as well as customer support offerings at the individual and organizational level. Customers can access the user guide at any time, and they frequently answer each other’s questions on user-run email lists.

The NVDA Community Channel provides a platform where users can connect and discuss all issues related to the software. Here, they share tips, best practices, and personal stories about how they’re employing the screen reader.

New and seasoned users can purchase the Basic Training for NVDA eBook for an overview on configurations, writing and editing, file management, and browsing the web, among many other tasks. Paid NVDA Telephone Support offers additional help via phone and remote connection with users’ computers. Organizations planning to implement the software for use by staff or clients have access to similar training and support options.

NV Access also offers accessibility consulting to developers working on Windows applications who want to ensure their software will be usable by the blind and vision-impaired. In cases where specific applications cannot be enhanced to improve accessibility, NVDA Access will work to make changes in the screen reader itself.

The Case for Web Accessibility and Proper Semantic Structure

Michael told us prioritizing web accessibility is a logical move from both the humanitarian and business perspective.

“There are many advantages to having an accessible website — firstly for personal and social reasons,” he said. “This could affect your grandmother or your brother or sister.”

According to Michael, nearly 20% of Americans have some form of disability, and he sees making website accessibility a logical priority for online business owners. From Michael’s perspective, excluding access to those markets just doesn’t make good business sense.

From a developer’s point of view, Michael stressed the importance of addressing web accessibility from the start of the development process.

“It is not useful to ignore accessibility and then, at the very end, try to bolt it on,” he said. “It’s just going to waste a whole lot of time. It’s much more efficient to think about it from the beginning.”

HTML semantics, while vital to accessibility for those with visual impairments, may also assist developers in building software for those without impairments. For Michael, the future is now, and the tech to create a more inclusive space for everyone is already here.

“There will probably come a point where we’ll be reading websites in our car while driving just with speech input and output. That’s one of the dreams — that you’ll be driving around and read your news without having to take your eyes off the road,” he said. “That involves accessibility because the so-called browser in the car has to understand the semantics of the page to understand what you’re asking for and what’s most appropriate.”

In the future, Michael hopes to expand the use of NVDA in teaching, specifically to advance STEM education for the visually impaired. His goal of providing access to general content on the web has been achieved, and he now sees academics as the next step.

“There’s some really good work going on in that space in terms of accessing diagrams or graphs using sound,” he said. “Hopefully, in the future, I’ll be able to work on that more, and we’ll be able to make some big strides in the scientific area.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christine Preusler

Christine Preusler is a communications specialist with more than 10 years experience helping clients manage print and digital publications, websites, social media campaigns, and email marketing platforms. She ignited her career with a bachelor's degree in journalism focused on digital media and a master's in mass communication. Today, Christine’s goal is to keep HostingAdvice readers abreast of the latest online trends and technologies while feeding her interest in web design and learning something new every day.