Visually impaired and a modern professional environment – Henri Louwes

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For most of us, it’s a common habit. You turn on your laptop or computer, sit down behind (or in front, I think the opinions are still divided on that) the screen, you read and start typing as a reaction to what you have just read.

Unfortunately, the reality is that this is not so natural for an ever-growing group of people. There are many reasons why someone sees less or even nothing at all, and therefore cannot read what is on the screen. This can be congenital, because of a disease or accident or just due to ageing.

The extent to which people see less can differ considerably. For example, one person can do with simple reading glasses, another needs a more advanced version (multifocal, prism etc.). There are also many people for whom these tools are not suitable at all because they have been blind from birth, suffer from (adult-onset) diabetes or another disease like Stargardt or Best, forms of macular degeneration that will eventually lead to complete blindness.

Bearing in mind the reports that the medical science is seeing the number of visually impaired people in the Netherlands (but also beyond) slowly increasing, becoming visually handicapped is a growing social problem. In September 2016, the site NU.nl reported that in 2020 the number of blind and visually impaired people in the Netherlands probably will have risen from 320,000 to 440,000. Whether the numbers are realistic is difficult to prove at this moment, but does give an idea of the scale.

I am absolutely no expert on this matter and those who would like to know more about this, in my opinion, interesting subject, please go to a site like Oogartsen.nl. You can also find a lot of information on Wikipedia. The subject drew my personal attention because it occurs in my circle of friends.

KPN is a socially involved company and a large employer in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, just like in a lot of other companies, there are not many visually impaired employees working at KPN. Despite the fact that people with a handicap often have (developed) talents at a higher level than people without this handicap. Often is said that people with a poor eyesight will have a better hearing.

Providing support on platforms opened by Citrix is just a small thing in the greater society as a whole, but we have to start somewhere. If that can be done independently, within our own sphere of influence, it is always better than it being imposed from above (which will irrevocably happen as part of the focusing of, among other things, the participation legislation).

During a working visit to a KPN site (I work as a Citrix Consultant at KPN Consulting in Groningen), the question was asked by a colleague if it is possible to give additional support to visually impaired employees, both KPN’s own people as well as people who work for KPN affiliated companies. At an earlier stage, the question had already been raised if we could do something with regard to making the so-called Windows “High Contrast” themes in the Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop sessions available.

Making the high contrast themes available locally in the workspace is easy to realise. In light of the many differences between eye diseases, the solution is definitely not 100% watertight. To focus only on that would not be sufficient at all. Therefore, we also had to look at other areas and/or products to offer applications and clients within the various (layered) Citrix XenApp sessions in the most intelligent way possible.

On the Citrix website, I found a White paper in which a number of Citrix-supporting products were described. However, this document was aimed towards Citrix Presentation Server 4.5 which has been “end-of-life” for a long time. After all, we are currently at version 7.15 of Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop.

The products described in this document are supplied by a handful of companies in the Netherlands. The necessary products (hardware and software) are certainly not cheap and often purchased by/for people after contacts with the UWV (Uitvoeringsinstituut Werknemersverzekeringen [Employee Insurance Agency]), in the context of assistance and possibly also subsidies.

After exchanging emails with a visually impaired colleague, I came in contact with the company Babbage, located in Roosendaal. Babbage supplies all sorts of tools, offers training in work and study situations and provides software adjustments for working spaces for people with a visual impairment. Babbage also advises organisations, employees and pupils/students about possible technical solutions and necessary personal training.

KPN has done business with Babbage on an individual basis for a longer time and the company also supplies the products described in Citrix whitepaper. In addition, it is also good in (further) developing products and communication protocols. Babbage is familiar with the infrastructure complexity and knows about issues with, among other things, “RDP-in-Citrix-in-Citrix” connections, situations we all probably recognise from somewhere in order to be able to ultimately operate underlying systems. In terms of accessibility for the visually impaired, this is the biggest challenge in complex environments.

For a “proof of concept”, we used NVDA as a screen-reader with supporting product UnicornDVC from Babbage which, to put it simply, connects an extra virtual channel to the virtual channels within the Citrix ICA communication protocol.

NVDA stands for “Non-Visual Desktop Access” and is an open-source (so “free”) screen-reader for computers running the MS Windows operation system. This allows blind and visually impaired users to operate a computer without a mouse or screen. Although NVDA has many advanced functions, it currently does not support external sessions (like RDP, Citrix or VMWare Horizon).

That is why Babbage has developed the UnicornDVC-software. This is a commercial product to create communication channels in remote desktop connections. Allowing a local and remote instance of NVDA to communicate with each other. This creates the possibility for a voice and braille user to operate a remote session with the same performance as a local system.

In a test set-up, we first opened an underlying XenApp/XenDesktop landscape from our workplace, via a Citrix Storefront web portal, and then added an extra Storefront/XenApp layer as a “double hop”. In the first layer, we created an “UnicornDVC relay” that enables communication between the workplace and the last XenApp layer.

It is not yet 100% perfect and stable, but the first experience is promising.

Together we will have to test and develop further. I will get back to that in a next piece.

Henri Louwes

Technical Consultant

KPN Consulting B.V.