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Cloud desktop accessibility

A look at how assistive technologies work in the cloud and virtual desktops

Susann Keohane, Elizabeth Woodward, IBM


The idea of a virtual desktop that you can access from any computer is becoming a practical reality and strategic tool in the modern smarter enterprise. The PC era, which replaced the mainframe era, is now being replaced by the cloud era where pools of resources, such as storage, CPU, memory or even virtual machines running virtual desktops, are available on demand and can be elastically provisioned from a broad set of heterogeneous devices over the network. In this new era, each user could potentially have a "personal cloud" configured in such a way as to meet his or her unique needs and requirements. As cloud technology evolves to seamlessly configure, integrate and deploy applications, IT of the future will be able to focus higher up in the software stack to deliver business value. This article explores what we know thus far with how assistive technologies work in this environment.

Why focus on cloud desktops?

Desktop virtualization delivers on-demand desktops to users for anytime, anywhere, any device access. This provides employees with full access to their complete business desktop from multiple devices, such as their home PC, a smart phone or an iPad®. Easy access to a virtualized desktop can help people to be more productive, because all they need to work is an Internet connection from any device, anywhere. People can use low powered PCs or mobile devices to access desktops with complex software configurations running on high-powered server hardware that might otherwise not be available to them. As an example, IBM® Rational® created desktop images that included an integration of several different server applications that demonstrated the power of their full collaboration lifecycle management suite of products. Sales people, instructors and their students, customers and others were able to access the fully configured suite of products and gain hands-on experience with their own personal servers. Due to server costs, it would be impossible to provide that level of interaction with servers to a large number of people.

From an IT perspective, virtual desktops help reduce the time it takes to provision new desktops, and they help to decrease desktop management and support costs. This is a great improvement over the old model, where software development teams were responsible for managing several product releases that had been delivered for multiple platforms. The number of possible combinations of platforms and software versions meant that having a dedicated set of hardware and software for every combination was too costly. Teams lost time reconfiguring hardware and software every time they had to address a problem or work with a particular release on a particular platform.

Desktop virtualization also helps reduce costs and errors by streamlining management of software assets, because software upgrades and maintenance can take place in one place instead of on many different personal machines. In a large-scale environment with 440,000+ employees—most using a PC—the improved efficiency of managing software assets through desktop virtualization can provide substantial cost savings to the business.

Virtual desktops also provide greater security to the organization, since employees aren't "carrying around" confidential company data on a personal device that could easily be lost, stolen or tampered with. Because user data is backed up centrally and regularly, desktop virtualization also provides data integrity benefits.

In summary, there are many benefits of desktop virtualization including cost savings because resources can be shared and allocated on an as-needed basis, more efficient use of resources and energy and improved data integrity because backup is centralized. As fewer resources are spent on the basics of an IT strategy, more resources are freed to add value to the 'core' business processes of a company.

Closer exploration of assistive technologies in cloud desktop

There are many aspects to a cloud desktop offering, including the interface for administrators to create and manage the configuration of the available virtual desktop images, and for the user to reserve and access the virtual desktop images. For a complete accessible solution it is imperative that administrators configure the virtual desktop's software stack to be enabled for accessibility. It is also critical that users with visual or hearing impairments are able to leverage assistive technologies to access the virtual desktops. The potential mix of virtual desktops and hosting client systems' operating systems can include GNOME™, Windows®, iOS and so on. For this article, we will focus on using assistive technologies and system settings with the virtual desktop itself. Specifically, we will discuss the Windows operating system using the Remote Desktop Connection to access the virtual desktop.

Screen reader support

A screen reader is assistive technology software used by people who are blind or visually impaired. It provides text and semantic information about interactive elements to enable the user to understand and interact with the operating system, applications, and Web content. The screen reader communicates the information to the user through text-to-speech. Because screen readers are desktop specific, we tested using the JAWS® screen reader for Windows. We learned that using JAWS to access a cloud desktop requires specific configuration setup both on the user's local system and on the cloud desktop. This means that administrators who are configuring and maintaining the desktop images should prepare those images in advance to be accessible by assistive technologies.

JAWS must be installed on the user's local system and in the cloud desktop. The JAWS license authentication is taken from the local machine. This way the number of licenses is equal to the number of users using JAWS. JAWS screen reader runs on the cloud desktop and sends the text to the local system that is then spoken using the local system's copy of JAWS. The reason text is sent instead of audio is to improve the latency between transfers. Users may experience lag with the cloud desktop system's sound as that does not get transferred as quickly as text to the local system. In short, applications that rely heavily on audio such as multimedia players may be subjected to latency depending on the network connection.

To support a virtual desktop using the JAWS screen reader, the professional license must add the remote desktop upgrade. The cloud desktop installation of JAWS must be a custom install with "client" option selected. This installation does not need to be authenticated; hence, in this environment only one professional license is needed. When the local copy of JAWS has the "remote access" upgrade and JAWS is correctly installed on the remote desktop then the JAWS dialog label on the remote desktop states "Remote JAWS" (see Figure 1).

Remote JAWS screen shot
Figure 1. Remote JAWS screen shot

If the local copy of JAWS does not have remote access option or the remote desktop does not have the correct installation of JAWS then when JAWS is started on the remote desktop the user is prompted to authorize JAWS. Any choice on the authorization dialog leads to the error message shown in Figure 2. In our test, the JAWS connection failure rate was ~20% which means 2/10 times the connection is not made between the two systems. If the connection is not made, then you must close JAWS on the server and sometimes close JAWS on the local system.

JAWS unauthorized user error
Figure 2. JAWS unauthorized user error

Magnifier support

Our effort to explore magnification in this environment is still ongoing. We tested with aiSquared's ZoomText®, a popular screen magnifier. It turns out ZoomText does not yet support the Windows Remote Desktop Connection. The way that the ZoomText software interacts with the video drivers seems to conflict with the way the Windows operating system supports remote video sharing to enable Remote Desktop Connection – or – the way the virtual machine images are provisioned – or both.

MAGic® from Freedom Scientific is another popular screen magnifier. Freedom Scientific, who also develops JAWS, indicated that MAGic does support the Windows Remote Desktop Connection. Further testing is needed to verify and document how MAGic works in this environment.

Large Font and High Contrast setting support

In our test it appeared that Windows XP high contrast support was lacking in this environment. After setting Windows XP display settings to high-contrast, it was not inherited by the cloud desktop. This problem appears to be corrected in Windows 7 with the inclusion of the Easy Access features at log-in time.

When using Windows 7 larger fonts, this system setting again did not appear to be enabled in the Windows 7 remote desktop.

In summary, high contrast and large font settings need further exploration to identify if the issues were a technical limitation of the remote desktop virtualization, a configuration issue, or if they were the result of an installation or configuration issue with the video device driver.


As mentioned, a complete solution for the desktop cloud offering would ensure that administrators have created, configured and maintained images that enable users to leverage assistive technologies and for users to have the local configuration required to access the images with their assistive technologies. Assistive technologies such as JAWS screen reader and MAGic magnifier need to be part of the pre-installed desktop images. Windows 7 log-in includes the Easy Access features, so Windows 7 images should be offered as a base image. Further exploration of assistive technologies compatible to iOS and GNOME cloud desktop offerings is needed.

Thanks and recognition

We would like to acknowledge and thank Phill Jenkins who was instrumental in assessing the assistive technologies in the virtual desktop environment.

About the Authors

Susann Keohane is an accessibility technical consultant for IBM Research Human Ability and Accessibility Center. Her primary role is to provide accessibility guidance to IBM development teams to ensure IBM products adhere to current and upcoming standards. She is an accessibility expert in the areas of software UI, documentation, and most recently acquiring expertise in cloud computing and mobile accessibility. She received a BS in Computer Engineering from the University of Florida and earned an MS in Software Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Susann is an IBM Research Master Inventor with 110 issued patents.

Elizabeth Woodward is a Senior Software Engineer with the IBM Research Human Ability and Accessibility Center Advanced Technology team with a focus on inclusive, accessible mobile and cloud computing. She leads development of a Software as a Service (SaaS) mobile project, has helped defined the cloud strategy for her organization, and is establishing a channel partner program for scalable, cloud delivery of research technologies. She served as the lead technical editor for the Cloud Standards Customer Council's Practical Guide to Cloud Computing, sponsored by OMG and delivered in September 2011. Elizabeth received a BS in Computer Science from California State University in Fresno, is an IBM inventor, and co-authored the agile development book A Practical Guide to Distributed Scrum.

iPad is a registered trademark of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries

IBM and Rational are trademarks of International Business Machines Corporation, registered in many jurisdictions worldwide.

The GNOME name is a registered trademark of GNOME Foundation in the United States or other countries.

Windows is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.

JAWS and MAGic are registered trademarks of Freedom Scientific, Inc. in the United States and/or other countries.

ZoomText is a registered trademark of Ai Squared in the U.S.A. and other countries.

JAWS and MAGic are registered trademarks of Freedom Scientific, Inc. in the United States and/or other countries.

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