I will repost a series of articles I wrote for my old blog, as well as on my blog at breakthematrix. I will start with this classic. Unfortunately,
An Open Letter to Tori Amos
From Austin Seraphin – firstname.lastname@example.org
I write this letter to express both my joy and concern. Your music brings me inspiration and solace. As someone blind since birth, I feel overjoyed that you have begun offering your concerts for digital download. As an audiophile, I feel overjoyed that you offer them in FLAC, giving a CD-quality file with lossless compression. My concern began as soon as I saw that you used an exclusively Java-based download manager. Doing this makes your site inaccessible to the blind, and limits your customer base in general. I would like to suggest that you offer an accessible version of your site.
I first discovered your music as I began college, in 1995, shortly before the release of Boys for Pele. Your emotional insight helped me get through that turbulent time. More recently, I rediscovered you after hearing American Doll Posse. I feel a renewed connection to your music and to a part of myself. I really wanted to attend the Philadelphia concert, but only found out about it two days beforehand, making it impossible – or at the least, highly improbable. When I read that you would begin releasing your concerts for download, I could hardly believe my apparent good fortune. When I saw that you offer them in FLAC, I felt like Goddess herself had blessed me. Your music has such breadth and depth. Offering your concerts in CD quality shows that you know and care about your audio and your fans.
As said, I became blind at birth. I started using computers around age seven, and quickly began to teach myself to program. I use a speech synthesizer to access my computers. It reads everything on the screen, and everything I type. This describes the ideal situation, such as under a text-based environment like Linux. Windows however presents a challenge to a blind user, since the crappy screen readers made for Windows can only do their best to interpret a visual environment. Think of the difficulty, confusion, and rage you have likely felt when trying to use windows. Now imagine doing that on a monochrome monitor with a shaky vertical hold and which goes blank from time to time for no reason forcing you to reset the computer. That approximates how it feels for a blind person to use Windows.
As though Windows did not present enough of a barrier, Java adds a whole other layer of complexity. Web sites can do things in real time either by running a program on the web server itself, or by running a program on the user’s computer. Running programs on the server does not inconvenience the user at all – they don’t even know it happens. Running a program on the user’s computer presents many issues not just to the blind, but also to the sighted. Something like Java actually runs a virtual machine – a program that emulates a separate computer. To the blind, it means that the screen reader has great difficulty, since the Java machine runs outside of Windows in a sense. Java also presents security risks which obviously effect both the blind and the sighted. Many users have Java disabled, and refuse to use sites which employ it extensively. Additionally, both the blind and the sighted feel confused while using such sites. It just effects the blind more rapidly and obviously, like many things in life. Either
way you look at it, you have limited your customer base, and I highly doubt anyone took the time to explain this to you. “Yes ma’am, they can download your tours. Now go announce it to the world!”
I tried going through the proper chain of command, in other words a single email address. I explained my problem and they wrote back a form letter. I replied again and they responded and apologized. They promised they would help me get the FLAC version of the Philadelphia concert. They did not know what to do and asked if I had any suggestions. Since they manage a download server, I figured they could just put the file on a private server for me to download, then remove it. They couldn’t do that, and suggested I get someone sighted to do it. This kind of suggestion always pisses me off! Blind people do not have an army of sighted people, waiting on them hand and foot. Additionally, I knew that the solution did not actually solve the underlying problem. I mentioned I have a server to which they could upload it. They agreed, and I created them a private account with a private directory. It felt wild to see the user “tori” logged in. I checked the directory during the transfer, and to my shock, saw the mp3
version of the concert. I quickly sent them email, since I know you have the excellent policy of offering the mp3 version until the FLAC version becomes available. I promptly received the following reply:
We will be unable to do the FLAC as an FTP upload from the support offices.
Just too large of a file.
Considering the amount of effort we are putting into getting you your
concert, we are hoping you will enjoy the MP3 version instead.
I could hardly believe it. Frankly, this explanation seemed ludicrous. I also did not care for the brusque tone. They run a download manager! If I ran this thing, I could have done what I requested in a matter of minutes. Two hours later, I received the final email, the one that did it, the insult to the injury:
This upload has completed. Sorry the system has been giving you so much
trouble, but we wanted to make sure you got the show you purchased. Enjoy!
So there you have it. I couldn’t get anywhere. As a Philadelphian, I knew I had to do something real, as you so elegantly and humorously stated during the concert. As a Discordian, I believe that a Crazy Woman runs the material universe, and I knew that change would have to come from the top down – from a crazy woman! As a programmer, I knew what I had to do. I published this letter on my blog, in hopes that readers will use the social bookmarks to bring it to your attention. I hope it finds you. I also hope you consider instituting some changes to your download manager. They could even keep their fancy Java-based solution, I simply request a solution accessible to the blind, as well as to the security-conscious sighted. I know you will do the right thing. Kick some ass! Contact me if you need some help.