Apple is developing new technologies to make Mac OS X more accessible for people with visual and learning disabilities, though these won't be made available until "the next major release of OS X", Apple says.

The company is previewing these technologies (Apple Spoken Interface) at the 19th annual Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference in LA.

Apple intends extending its long-needed accessibility solution to make the whole system navigable as it's an enhancement of OS X's Aqua UI.

"The Universal Access capabilities of Mac OS X will soon be enhanced with a spoken interface that provides a new way, through speech, audible cues, and keyboard navigation, to access the Macintosh," the company says.

Spoken Interface is available as a preview now, interested users need to fill in a form on Apple's dedicated Spoken Interface Web site.

The move to deliver a Spoken Interface follows third party developer ALVA Access Group's decision to stop making the only existing Mac solution providing such features in summer 2003.

37 million Europeans need accessible computers

A wave of accessibility rules have appeared globally while governments and agencies consider the impact of IT on everyday life. In the US, a ruling called Section 508 requires that Federal agencies' electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. Apple must make its technologies accessible to sell to US government markets.

The need for software companies to make accessibility products is equally illustrated in Europe, where an organization called EuroAccessibility launched at the end of April 2003. This consists of 23 European organisations (including the UK's RNIB and RNID) together with the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C).

It aims to develop an accessibility testing methodology; to establish a European Web Accessibility certification authority; create an Accessible Website Quality Mark and to develop a network of supporting services throughout Europe.

European Union figures show that 37 million people with disabilities live in the region. W3C director Tim Berners-Lee has said: "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."

In an attempt to improve employability and social inclusion for people with special needs the European Commission last year introduced its two-year e-Europe programme. This focuses on Web Accessibility, and also aims to publish a set of standards for accessibility of information technology products, and to create a network of national centres of excellence in universal design.

Spoken Interface – complete voice control

The Spoken Interface feature will read Web pages, Mail messages and word processing files. It also offers to navigate the Mac: "It provides a comprehensive audible description of your workspace and all the activities taking place on your computer", Apple says, "and includes a rich set of keyboard commands that allow you to navigate the Mac OS X interface and interact with application and system controls.

"If you or someone you are assisting has visual or learning impairments, the spoken interface enhances the rich set of Universal Access features in Mac OS X to ensure equal access for everyone," Apple says.

The interface will be built-in to Mac OS X – vastly reducing the investment in terms of computer, OS and add-on software and peripherals that has been needed before. Screen readers for Windows can cost $1,000 or more. the new software will "makes owning a Mac a bargain for the visually disabled", writes Business Week.

Apple explains a little of how the software will function: "To drive the spoken interface, you'll use the keyboard instead of the mouse. You can choose any combination of keyboard commands and shortcuts your prefer and can even take advantage of Apple's full keyboard access option. Full keyboard access extends your ability to navigate to items such as the Dock, menu bar, window tool bars, and palettes.

"The spoken interface can also be directed using a new feature called the viewfinder, a powerful tool that lets you control what is spoken, and enables you to interact with items on the screen using only your keyboard. You can press buttons, drag sliders, enable and disable check boxes, select radio buttons, drag, scroll bars, and many other on-screen controls," the company explains.

Developer friendly, too

Apple has news for developers, too: because the feature will be a system-level implementation, developers will be able to harness the technology for use in their products. Apple will offer APIs to them for this.

"Those that closely follow Apple's programming guidelines will deliver the best accessibility experience", Apple says, and adds that it is working to make many of its own apps more accessible, "including the Finder, Mail, Safari, TextEdit, iChatAV, Calculator, and more".

Business Week reports Apple senior product manager Chris Bourden, who claims that if developers use Cocoa to build their apps, they will "already have built in over 90 per cent of the information required by Spoken Interface to make the program fully accessible. Already, he says, a lot of Cocoa-based software works with Spoken Interface without any adjustments to the underlying program code at all."