During my time working with and using assistive technology, I have participated in many discussion forums dealing with various pieces of adaptive hardware and software products for the visually impaired. One topic which often comes up has to do with the accessibility of antivirus programs with screen readers. Usually, someone will pose a question such as “I’m trying to find out what’s the most accessible antivirus program which I can use with my screen reader?” There will be many opinions, of course, with people commenting on this or that antivirus package which works well with a particular screen reader. This is certainly an important topic and one which definitely needs to be addressed. I would like to weigh in on this issue and begin the answer to that question by saying that we might not be starting out with the right question.
Some of the things I’m about to write regarding the subject of antivirus accessibility may be controversial to some and may possibly ruffle some feathers. This is not my intent. I’d just like to offer a slightly different perspective on this topic.
The question we should all be asking, whether we’re blind or sighted, is what antivirus or security solution is highly rated, according to independent lab tests. I realize the problem with this question is that, sometimes, what some may consider to be a good antivirus solution might not be compatible with our screen reader of choice. When we find out that specific solutions we might otherwise have considered don’t work well with our screen reader, we choose one which is more accessible. Lest you think I’m looking down on other screen reader users, please know that I did the exact same thing for years.
In 1999, I began using what was, at that time, a current version of Norton Antivirus on my Windows 98 machine. The program was well-known, was shipped with my computer with a free, one year subscription and was, from what I remember, 100% accessible.
Eventually, the program’s level of accessibility began to change and I discovered AVG 7.5. It, too, was 100% accessible and was probably the only antivirus program which allowed the user to change and redefine shortcut keys for its various functions, just as today’s screen readers allow you to change the shortcut keys for their commands. It was amazing and it seemed like it was almost made for visually impaired screen reader users. I should note that I never once considered whether the program was actually effective in keeping my computer secure. As naive as this may sound, I’ll admit that it never occurred to me to actually read objective reviews to see if AVG could do an even half-decent job in protecting my system. It was free, super accessible and had the word antivirus in its name. What more could I possibly want?
As I’m sure many of you will remember, version 8 of AVG came along and, while the program was still mostly accessible, the interface changed, keyboard shortcut reassignment was gone and, over time, accessibility became a bit more problematic, although the program was certainly usable enough. Bear in mind that I haven’t used it in several years and, if accessibility has improved, I’ll be the first to celebrate that fact.
So, like so many of us, I decided to find another program with the word antivirus in its title with at least reasonable screen reader accessibility. I found Avast 4.x and it wasn’t bad. Like many blind people, I happily used it. Until 5.0 came around and the program was not accessible, though I know they’ve since been working on this and things have likely changed.
So, I uninstalled Avast and found what I believed was the ideal solution with Microsoft Security Essentials. It was free, seemed light on resources and was 100% accessible. My problem, so I thought, was solved. Over time, I began to read that MSE wasn’t doing as well in dealing with viruses but I figured, hey, I’m a cautious user. I take a lot of precautions: I update software regularly, adjusted security settings on my router, am careful about opening attachments to the point of paranoia, use a script blocker on most pages … in other words, I was hardly what you would call reckless and used my computer as responsibly as I knew how. Of course, I knew even then that there was always a chance my PC could get hit by malware, no matter how careful I was, but I believed I was reasonably safe. Until I was hit by crippling malware which forced me to reformat my hard drive and reinstall everything, rebuilding everything from the ground up.
I realize that there are many people who have found an accessible or at least usable antivirus solution who have never been hit by malware. I’m sure there are many happy users of MSE or Windows Defender who happily use their computer who may never be crippled by a virus. I also realize that corporations who deploy many different security solutions, who employ security experts who know a hundred times more than I’ll ever hope to know, still get hit by malware. When it comes to computer security, there are no guarantees, no matter how much you know or what you do to protect yourself. My point is that, for years, I was content to place accessibility as a higher priority over safety and security and that simply isn’t a mistake I’m willing to make again. For word processing, I use Microsoft Word, not only because it’s quite accessible, but because it simply is one of the best word processors out there for what I need.
I would encourage anyone considering their security needs to read reviews of which programs performed well with independent tests and then download a demo version of the program they choose; I believe most security programs offer a 30 or 60 day trial. If it doesn’t perform well with your preferred screen reader, I would do a few things.
First, write to the developer of the program with a clear description of the accessibility issues you’re experiencing, with as much detail as you can provide. Let them know that you’re considering purchasing the software but that you’re unwilling to do so until the issues you’re describing are addressed. If they don’t respond, contact them publicly on Twitter. In addition, contact your screen reader developer to see if they can construct scripts, apps or configuration files to try and work around what you’re experiencing. Computer security is too serious of an issue to make decisions based on how well the program works with a screen reader, rather than making the decision based on how well the software actually secures the precious data on your computer. I love good conversation as much as the next person but, if I’m trying to find a good physician, I’ll choose one based on how skilled he is as a doctor, rather than on how articulate or eloquent he may be. If he’s highly skilled and a good conversationalist, that’s fabulous but I prize skill and knowledge over how much we might have in common to chat about.
I would also respectfully ask the staff at NV Access and VFO Group to consider working with the developers of security software to see if alliances can be formed, with the goal of making these important software packages more accessible with NVDA, JAWS and Window-Eyes. Screen reader manufacturers forge similar alliances with companies like Microsoft for the same reasons. These alliances are what allows programs like Window-eyes to maintain compatibility and fabulous accessibility with programs such as Word, Excel and the operating system itself. When screen reader manufacturers say that they’re ready to work with Windows 10 or Word 2016 out of the gate, it’s partly due to these necessary relationships they form with companies like Microsoft. I’m not criticizing such partnerships. Nobody denies that screen readers are useless if they don’t offer great support for products like Outlook, Word and even Windows 10 itself. I’m asking that screen reader developers take this concept further and reach out to developers of security programs, to form similar partnerships. Having access to Microsoft Word is great. However, that accessibility means nothing if the security solutions designed to protect my Word documents isn’t accessible.
At this point, some of you may be wondering which program I decided to use. I chose Kaspersky Antivirus. When I had my computer in a local shop after it was hit by the virus I wrote about earlier, the proprietor said that he used this program and recommended it. I read a review of it in PC Magazine and was convinced that it would be a good choice, considering how well it performed in independent lab tests. I didn’t know what level of accessibility it offered but I was determined to make it work, even if I had to engage in a lot of advocacy to achieve that goal.
While the program’s accessibility isn’t perfect, it is quite usable and I am able to adjust most of the program’s settings. Unfortunately, the installer for the newer versions is completely inaccessible, something which I hope Kaspersky will soon remedy.
Finally, if you’d like to talk with me and other users about what we can do to change the accessibility landscape of security software, I have set up a mailing list for that purpose. Please consider joining it and, together, perhaps we can assist in improving screen reader accessibility of these critical pieces of software.