Assistive technology in small languages

Wanting to use the latest in assistive technology while having a mother tongue that is only spoken by 10 million people is a challenge. For those who find English difficult, this often means waiting before the latest version is available in the right language, something that hinders and creates irritation in everyday life. My reasoning in this chronicle is based on my mother tongue Swedish, but is of course also valid for other small languages.

Joakim Centervik

Title: Tester and Training Instructor

A screen reader is used by a person who sees very little or nothing. It is a tool that conveys navigation and content using a synthetic voice and/or Braille. To put it simply: without a screen reader, it is impossible for a severely visually impaired person to use a computer or a smartphone. With a screen reader, it is however possible to use these and do things that were previously very difficult to perform without eyesight.

What is the problem?

Since I started using a computer many years ago, my everyday- and working life has become much simpler, and therefore I am always keen to find new exciting things to learn and benefit from. For me and everyone else who likes to be in the forefront when it comes to screen readers, it usually means that it is necessary to use English versions because there are no versions for smaller languages.

This is not just about the voice that reads out the content, but above all it is all instructions and functions of the tool. It can be quite annoying to get a Swedish text read by an English voice, but what can make it really difficult is when all the commands in the application itself is in another language than one is used to.
This works fine for me, but for users who have difficulties with English and are not interested in technology, this is likely to cause problems. The majority of people who need screen readers are older, due to the fact that many experience impaired vision late in life.

To use a foreign language in combination with the fairly new technology can be perceived as very complicated.

What is the problem? Do not manufacturers of screen readers care enough to put time and effort to ensure that all users around the world to have a fully functioning product? I am convinced that there are other reasons than that. Most commercial manufacturers of screen readers are located in the US. It is difficult to have employees that master a variety of languages, large and small. The manufacturers have solved this in different ways. The commercial and major manufacturers have agreements with local companies that distribute and translate their products, which means that this takes a varying amount of time, depending on the language. It is yet more difficult for the developers of the screen reader NVDA, which is based on open source, because they need to rely on volunteers to do translations. So even though this is frustrating there are no easy solutions.

Translation no guarantee

Even when there is a translated version is not certain that it is the latest version that becomes available. A good example of that is that one of the world's most popular screen reader Jaws took three months to translate into Swedish. When it was finally out, 2 bugfix versions had already been released in English, French, Spanish and German. Small languages, like Swedish and Norwegian, will get the fixes sometime in a diffuse future.

You might think I am a little grumpy, but sometimes these kind of delays cause problems for users. In 2011 Microsoft released its Internet Explorer 9. This version was not compatible with the current Swedish Jaws version and therefore all Jaws users were advised not to install Microsoft's updates, even though these had improved accessibility support. It took a long time before Explorer 9 was used widely among visually impaired in Sweden, even though an update that was compatible with it was released. Not all screen readers have these problems but it is a noticeable difference between smaller and larger language areas.

The way forward

So what is there to hope for in the future? Personally, I hope that screen readers and other support for accessibility become more integrated into the operating systems. This could make the tools more readily available. It could also to a greater extent make it possible to produce translations and other adaptations more quickly. For there is no doubt that access to computers make many of us users more independent, more productive and happier.