Michael Curran, co-founder of NV Access, co-creator of NVDA, and panelist for AccessibilityPlus 2021.
I learned very quickly to fight for what I wanted. And I think that set me on this sort of road of understanding that if I put in the effort, and I have momentum in my own life, and a belief in what I do, then I can achieve what I want.
Michael Curran, a founder of NV Access and a creator of NVDA, has spent his life working to ensure no person who is blind has to pay to access the internet. NV Access boasts over 200,000 users around the globe, including China, Syria, and Afghanistan.
You can hear more from Michael Curran this October at AccessibilityPlus 2021.
Interview with Michael Curran, co-founder of NV Access, co-creator of NVDA, and speaker for AccessibilityPlus 2021.
Transcript for Interview with Michael Curran, co-founder of NV Access, co-creator of NVDA, and speaker for AccessibilityPlus 2021.
John Griffin: So, we’re talking to Michael Curran who developed a software that he’s going to spend a lot of time telling you about, which is for the vision impaired, and he’s got an incredibly unique story. And what’s especially unique about this is, for me, is I’m waiting for my dinner to be served, and he’s just finished his breakfast on the other side of the world in Australia. Good morning, Michael Curran.
Michael Curran: Good morning, thank you for having me.
John Griffin: It’s good to have you. Michael, I know your story, how you met at a camp with your associate, and you guys were deep into music, music camp. And it’s kind of amazing that these kind of camp adventures give birth to so much that comes forward from the disability community themselves. Judy Heumann, I spoke with her yesterday. She’s one of our keynote speakers. She got an idea at a camp that equality for disabled people should be valued just as much as it is for abled people. It’s very similar to what you saw. It’s kind of a fascinating story that starts with -- your story that starts with computer out of the box doesn’t work for people with vision impairment. So, how did you get on the ground that you’re sitting on now? Where did you get the idea? Where did you get the inspiration from? Was it out of frustration or out of passion or out of empathy? Or was it all those things, Michael?
Michael Curran: I think it is based on a bit of empathy, but also a bit of life experience. I was born with a lot of medical issues; digestive problems, including being totally blind, etc. And I was in and out of hospital for the first three years or so of my life with some pretty significant operations. And, to be honest, when I was first born, doctors really weren’t sure whether I was going to survive. But thanks to the doctors, and my schooling, and definitely my parents I certainly, I got on in life. I learned very quickly to fight for what I wanted. And I think that set me on this sort of road of understanding that if I put in the effort, and I have momentum in my own life, and a belief in what I do, then I can achieve what I want.
But then at the same time, looking around the world and looking at, and as I sort of grew up into adulthood and started to learn about the rest of the world, and perhaps comparing the opportunities that I had versus perhaps what a lot of other people may not have had, especially in the disability community, especially in the blindness community, I really wanted to make a difference somehow to everyone and give them the same opportunity. Because I learnt pretty young that if you’re given a chance at something, then you can contribute to society and feel good about it. So, I think that’s really where it started for me. But I mean, of course, it’s been a very long journey and it took me a very long time to sort of learn that and process it. A lot of it was probably subconscious in the beginning, but nowadays, that’s how I see it.
John Griffin: I’m going to start this, dive into this. From where NVDA stands today in terms of the usage across the globe, tell me what your scorecard looks like today, and we’re going to go back from that.
Michael Curran: So, we have, roughly speaking, around 200,000 downloads of the product each release we make. We know that NVDA is being used in over 150 countries. We have translated, or I should say the community has translated NVDA into over 51 languages. And so it’s being used in every part of the globe. I mean, just the other day, I was curious and had a look at the fact that there are currently six people using it in Afghanistan right now, and that’s extremely significant for me to understand that, to know, I mean, we don’t know, these user stories, or anything like that. But the fact that, looking at a place like Afghanistan, or indeed, I did the same thing, five or so years back looking at there were four or five people using it in Syria. I mean, this is real stuff. And that could be make or break for certain blind people in terms of getting access to important information to make decisions about their life or about politics or whatever. Obviously, NVDA is used all around the world for education and gaining and keeping employment and to socialize and all that. But it’s also very humbling to see when it’s used in particular countries as well, where the situation is pretty dire.
John Griffin: Yeah, it is very dire. The prospect of downloads on this, you guys decided to create a software that you were going to open access and free market, no cost involved. That boggles the mind. How did you first seed this? I can understand building out donations at this point in time, and I know that you’ve got some important people on the corporate side that support you. And they are -- Well, we’ll get into that a little bit later. I want to talk about how voice and vision are now integrating, what that means to the email business. But for now, how did you seed this?
Michael Curran: I mean, I think it really was started simply as a pet project that was fun to do, just simply to see whether I could do it. Maybe almost to sort of just to prove it to myself as a very young adult. I think I started at 23 or something like that. And I was fairly comfortable. I’d just taken a break from university. I was on a blind pension living with my girlfriend at the time. We had no children or anything like that. We were comfortable enough financially. And it was fun. I just wanted to try my hand at -- I had no idea whether it would succeed or not, it was just something to do. so, simply was volunteering my time, but simply just because I found it fun. And even my colleague, Jamie Tay jumped on board pretty soon after. He had another job, of course, at the time, but he used to spend his -- he used to, in his lunch breaks, when he should have been resting and having lunch, he would be on the phone to me, and coding and stuff with me at the same time on this project, because we both enjoyed it so much. Because it was partly just a sort of a can we do it sort of thing, but also this kind of software we, as blind people ourselves, completely rely on? And we need to get it right so that we can actually use the computer ourselves.
John Griffin: So, you deliver a package or your people download it and then they do the translations, you don’t do that for them.
Michael Curran: That’s right. That’s right. The translations are done by people in various communities, various countries, language speaking communities, and they do it for free, and they do it because they need it themselves. They’re motivated themselves. We’re not forcing them to, paying them to whatever. In fact, they originally came to us. I mean, I remember in 2006, when I first maybe about, I don’t know, five months into the project we got an email from someone in Slovakia saying, look, I would really like to translate NVDA into my language. Can you make these, I think, fairly small changes in NVDA so that we could enable them to efficiently add translations into the project. We said, yeah, that’s fine. Totally cool. And then the next one was someone from Brazil, and then it sort of grew from there. But they were the ones, people were coming to ask, saying, could we please translate for ourselves. And that’s what’s happened for the last 15 years.
John Griffin: Did you do any kind of outreach, any kind of marketing, any overseas marketing, not that there isn’t a big enough market in Australia and South Pacific too?
Michael Curran: Not commercially, not in any -- We don’t really pay anyone or anything to get our ads out there or anything, no advertising as such. It’s really word of mouth. We’re very well, these days, connected in with the blindness community. Obviously, most people who are probably connected to the internet have at least heard of us who are in the blindness community. Maybe half of them use us and half of them don’t, and that’s totally fine. But, yeah, people just tell each other. Well, of course, we do things such as this kind of interview or another blindness related radio stations, things like that, of course. But we don’t deliberately go out there and commercially advertise. No, we’ve never done that.
John Griffin: The World Health Organization claims 260 million, 280 million, I don’t know what the actual number is, vision impaired. Is it daunting to think how extensive this can go?
Michael Curran: It is very. We also, though have to be, we want to be clear that we’re good at one particular thing, which is writing a particular piece of software, and putting it out there so that people who can, can use it. We don’t really -- I mean, you’ve just given that number, I mean, like -- So, we have roughly 200,000 users, which is probably about, estimation was probably about half of users, blind users who definitely use computers all the time, which is only about 400,000. But you’re talking 260 million. It just goes to show how much work we still all have to do in terms of getting infrastructure and just hardware and stuff out to people. But also, though, it’s fair to say that taking a little bit more of a sort of a zoomed out, look at this, that a lot of countries and cultures have almost jumped over the computer revolution and have gone straight to smartphones and things like that. So, at least in the small work that we do, we probably won’t see a lot of those, we probably won’t touch a lot of those people as they’ve gone on to the phones. There’s probably work that we can do separately, but it’s not really to do with NVDA as such. NVDA specifically is about making the Windows platform accessible to blind people.
John Griffin: Yeah. That was where I was going to go before when I thought about some of the verbal technologies now that are becoming so capturing. Alexa has kind of kicked the dominoes over, have people thinking more about receiving their emails in their ear, rather than on their screen. What’s your take on that? Where do you see that? It’s clearly out there, and there’s a whole lot of emails that are still on computers.
Michael Curran: I think it’s an exciting time at the moment. And I think there’s sort of two parts of this. I think this kind of technology, certainly the verbal technology, is really great for everyone, no matter what kind of -- whether they have a disability or not, or what abilities they do have. That’s very clear. Things like Alexa and Siri and all that are becoming extremely popular and used in many different, various ways. I mean, obviously, we use Siri to ask what the weather is, or whatever, or someone might use Alexa to read out a recipe or read out an email or something like that. And that’s great and that’s totally changing the world. I don’t know, I’m not yet personally convinced how efficient that kind of stuff is, in many different aspects of daily work. I think it’s great when you’re sort of mobile and out on a run or you’re getting ready in the morning or you’re cooking a meal or something like that. I think that that kind of verbal system is really useful, and it certainly changed my life and it’s changed other people’s lives. I’m not yet convinced that the sort of the latency and the sort of the input is necessarily perhaps as efficient as perhaps using a keyboard or some other form of device, or input device could be in terms of actually getting the job done. So, doing really complex work, or writing documents, or even reading or very quickly trying to access a lot of complex information, so browsing a website. I’m sure that that will improve more and more, but I don’t believe we’re there yet at all, personally.
But at the same time, the other aspect I think is worth looking at is that a lot of this kind of verbal technology has come about, even though it’s used in the mainstream now, has come about through the needs of people with disabilities. And this happens all the time in terms of disability causes innovation within the disability sector, and then bleeds out into the mainstream. And I always find that extremely exciting. So, for instance research into speech synthesis, and making speech output more clearer or even indeed, speech input more accurate, has all come from the needs of the disability community, and then then come into the mainstream. And everyone’s now like, oh, this is useful, and that’s really -- I think it’s almost a pride thing for people with disabilities. Whether we had anything, necessarily to do with it ourselves in terms of the making of it, but the fact that we advocated and pushed for our own needs, and then it’s also helped many, many more people, that’s a great thing.
John Griffin: It’s kind of a fascinating time. The conference that we’re coming up on in October, which you will be a part of is about empowering accessibility to businesses. Business kind of still resides as sort of the final frontier for the accessibility issue to become part of a cultural change and part of an equality that free nations should be operating under. Have you come across any kind of resistance in any way to what you provide? Have any of these countries that you mentioned before, you mentioned Syria, and you mentioned Afghanistan, certainly, these are totalitarian kinds of government situations. Do you find that it’s difficult for people? Have you gotten any feedback at all that persons that want the freedom that you bring them are not allowed to have it?
Michael Curran: We haven’t got direct feedback like that. But if we look at, for instance, China, though, our statistics, at least from what we can track, are extremely low. And if we go by our statistics alone, we only have 200 to 400 users in China, and I don’t believe that for a second. So, there’s trouble in getting those statistics. And no doubt, that’s just because they sort of have their internet firewalls and things like that, whatever they do. And that’s probably true for certain other countries as well. So, it’s hard to work out what the situation really is. I do know in China that they have about at least four different screen reading products similar to NVDA. Most of them probably commercial, though it’s possible the Chinese government may provide some of these to people for free. Again, I don’t really have the evidence. But then at the same time we know that NVDA is certainly being used in Hong Kong, and it’s being used in Taiwan. So, we just don’t know the situation in China. It could be bad, it could be okay.
So, there’s probably other countries I can give similar examples to. Another situation is purely because we’re open source. In the past, there has been some nervousness and worry, especially from governments about using our product because they believe that something is open source, therefore, it’s not secure or it’s not good enough. Which, to be honest, is usually far from the truth because if something is open source, anyone can audit the code themselves and work out for themselves whether it’s secure or not. Just because something is closed source doesn’t mean for a second that it’s any more secure. It simply just means we don’t know. And so, yeah, there has been that. But having said that, though, things are definitely changing now in the government and corporate world.I mean, now you have, obviously Google sort of started using a lot of open source products several years ago. Now, we also see Microsoft is majorly changing its direction, and is really embracing open source products such as Linux. And I mean, it just bought GitHub, which is the main sort of huge code repository for millions of open source projects. So, I think the opinion is definitely changing. So, it’s an exciting time, and we’ll see what happens.
John Griffin: Yeah, it is. It’s an exciting time for disabilities and the voice of society is opening up, and the younger generations are going to have their way. They’re not going to tolerate, I don’t think they’re going to tolerate segregation of disabilities the way it’s segregated in the past. It used to be, I mean, I don’t know what it’s like in Australia. But if you were to call somebody a segregationist in this country, it would really be a problem. Well, what else is it if you’re unwilling to open your head to accessibility for the disabled, or to live up to our nation’s creed, E Pluribus Unum, from many, there is one. So, it’s changing. It’s changing almost, to a person, every single one of the speakers that I’ve talked to are coming up in the conference and in these sessions, they all kind of agree that can’t exactly define it, can’t exactly prove it, but we know there’s a moment. There’s this change in the air. And I think part of that could be because of the pandemic, because of COVID. Everybody came through COVID surprise that there was no world collapse, that there was a society that fell off the end of the earth.
We went through this long period of almost literal incarceration and businesses survived, people survived, even the disabled. In fact, the disabled may have gained a whole new respect, because without the things that the able person had, they got through it too. They found a way to get their groceries and get to the doctors or get medications or accomplish. Oh, by the way, you mean that disabled people are problem solvers because they have to be. [crosstalk] That they’re team players? Yes, because they have to be. They’d be pretty good people that haven’t business, wouldn’t they? So maybe it’s just that. Maybe there’s a whole lot of -- I mean, when you look at -- I’m a great believer in history. I think it repeats itself continually. When you look at the last great industrial revolution, it was 100 years ago, it began and it began out of a pandemic, the Spanish flu. And what followed it was a couple of world wars and some of the wars that should have been world wars that were not, fortunately.
But it was after that, that we began automation and the Industrial Revolution and so forth. And technology is halfway through 100 years. 1971 was the first microprocessor introduced. And here we are. We’re talking about invisible technology that will open up and give vision to the blind and give hearing to the deaf. It’s kind of an amazing time, and it’s all built -- I’m also, as publisher of accessibility, I believe that accessibility is the turning house for everything that goes on. All discovery, all science, all endeavor, anything that is produced for disabilities stops if accessibility doesn’t become the meeting point between the two things. There’s a need, there’s a promise, you got to put them together, you got to make them accessible. I am astounded by the generosity of the meaning of what you’ve done. And I congratulate you and James, and so glad that we had an opportunity to air your story. Maybe we can help you get to the next 200,000 people.
Michael Curran: That would be great. Thank you.
John Griffin: That would be very good. And to anybody that’s watching this and has listened carefully, this is why accessibility matters.