Digidesign Demonstrates Upcoming ProTools Accessibility

An update has been posted at ProToolsPetition.org regarding Digidesign’s continuing efforts to provide accessibility in its ProTools professional recording software to VOiceOver users. Slau Halatyn was invited to see their progress first-hand, and below is a copy of his report on the experience.

At the end of August, I received an email message from David Gibbons, vice-president of product marketing at Digidesign, informing me that they were about to hire a software engineer who would specifically work on issues of accessibility in Pro Tools. This person would focus on VoiceOver compatibility for approximately six weeks before other duties would take priority. Although we had supplied Digidesign with a sort of "top 10" priority list, we agreed that it would be quite helpful if someone could give Pro Tools a test run once some of the work had been implemented.

The engineer, Xiang Cao, accomplished a great deal in his first week of working on the Pro Tools user interface. He and I exchanged a few email messages discussing specific questions about common practices both for VoiceOver and blind Pro Tools users. I planned a trip to Daly City, California, to visit with Xiang and to spend several hours trying out the newly accessible interface. Also, it was a good opportunity to plan a meeting with some other key people at Digidesign who either already supported this project or were interested in learning more about the issue of Pro Tools accessibility.

On Monday, September 28, I finally got a chance to meet Xiang in person at Digidesign’s headquarters. We sat down in his office and settled in for an in-depth evaluation of his work thus far. He launched VoiceOver and then launched Pro Tools and proceeded to navigate the application’s interface while VoiceOver provided feedback about selected tools, edit modes, counter positions, meter values, etc. It was truly an extraordinary and overwhelming experience to finally have access to items that were, in previous versions, completely inaccessible to blind users.

We spent over three hours going through a plethora of UI elements within numerous windows and dialogs, discussing priorities, evaluating the user experience and planning for future work. It was always clear that, given Pro Tools’ complexity, this was going to be a long-term project and that accessibility improvements would need to be rolled out over several software releases, but I hadn’t expected to see so much progress at this point. I was truly impressed with how much Xiang was able to accomplish over the past couple of weeks, especially having never dealt with accessibility features of VoiceOver before. He informed me that Apple’s documentation was extremely comprehensive and very straightforward.

That afternoon, we took a break for a scheduled meeting with other key people at Digidesign. I shared with them some background information about Rick Boggs’ successes with Pro Tools accessibility in the mid ’90s and how the move to OS X broke the accessibility that blind users had under OS 9 with the outSPOKEN screen reader.

After a few questions and answers, we gathered in Xiang’s office for a brief demonstration of the work done thus far. Xiang was able to effectively demonstrate how VoiceOver was able to identify controls and their various states, manipulate their functions, navigate the interface and interact with many areas of the application. It gave everybody a better understanding of how a blind user could access the very same controls that a sighted user would use without the need for an alternative interface or any extra software.

After our brief demonstration, Xiang and I continued to identify areas that still needed work and we made a new list of priorities for the completion of this phase of the project. I left Digidesign at the end of the day feeling both exhilarated and exhausted, as if I had been on an emotional roller coaster, experiencing rushes of excitement in between moments of concern over certain challenges. More than anything, I felt very optimistic about the achievements thus far and Digidesign’s commitment to future improvements to Pro Tools accessibility. Personally, as a longtime Pro Tools user, finally seeing tangible results after years of planning, meeting and discussing the issues was very encouraging.

That evening, I had dinner in San Francisco with Xiang and David Gibbons, who has taken a personal interest in this project. When we met for the first time several years ago, I could tell that David recognized the complexity of making Pro Tools accessible to blind users but I do believe that he also recognized its importance. Over dinner, we discussed our next steps and made plans for the coming weeks. I asked if I could share the news and update this website to reflect the latest developments. He encouraged me to share whatever information would be helpful and gave me permission to disclose any information I wanted.

In the near future, I’ll be a guest on the Maccessibility Podcast to speak in greater detail about some of the issues we encountered and the problems we’ve had to solve in the process. For now, I would say that it’s probable that an upcoming release of Pro Tools by the early part of next year will include a user interface accessible through VoiceOver with enhancements to be rolled out over several software versions in the future. More details will be available at this website as things develop.

Slau Halatyn