Apple should do more for blind app users, says advocacy group

VoiceOver

UPDATE: Reuters didn’t use Tim Cook’s complete remarks, we’ve posted them here.

Apple should do more to improve accessibility for its apps, says an advocacy group, supported by members of the National Federation of the Blind.

“It’s time for Apple to step up or we will take the next step,” NFB of California board member Michael Hingson told Reuters. The advocacy group successfully sued Apple regarding iTunes back in 2008, with Apple paying out $250,000 and giving the service an accessibility-minded makeover as part of the settlement. While it may not reach the level of a repeat lawsuit, Hingson says that this could be “the only resort” to force Apple’s hand.

Apple has worked to improve accessibility for blind and deaf users over the past few years, with features like VoiceOver and a recent patent for a new graphical interface designed for the visually impaired.

However, blind advocates notes that apps from companies including Bank of America, Southwest Airlines, and Netflix lack basic accessibility features like button labels which can be read aloud by VoiceOver. The result are apps which prove difficult to navigate.

“I get nervous every time I hit the update button,” one user is quoted as saying.

According to research firm Fifth Quadrant Analytics, there is a worldwide market of 1.1 billion people with disabilities — with close to 21 million U.S. adults experiencing vision loss, and approximately 28 million have a hearing impairment.

In a 2013 speech at Auburn University, Tim Cook described how people with disabilities live “in a struggle to have their human dignity acknowledged.”

“They’re frequently left in the shadows of technological advancements that are a source of empowerment and attainment for others,” he said.

  • Ron Hawkins

    So laziness on the part of 3rd party app writers means you sue Apple?

    • Luke Dormehl

      Their argument is, I think, that Apple should be moderating which apps are accepted into the App Store. I agree that this doesn’t really seem to relate to Apple’s own software, but the thought process seems to be that’s it easier to get Apple to impose top-down guidelines than it is to go after every app maker individually.

      • Adrayven

        Wont work. Apps are not movies; can’t just slap some words at the bottom of the screen and call it good. Apps are a lot more like cars. You get various versions for various purposes and tastes.. You don’t see accessibility lifts in every freaking CAR, truck or VAN? no.. it’s stupid..

        if an app developer WANTS to develop for accessibility, they (the advocacy group) should create a certification program and encourage certain features.. Maybe push Apple to get involved and great a sub-category for Accessibility Approved apps).. but FORCING all apps? no.. Next they’ll say all Microsoft, Android, and Linux Apps MUST be accessibility approved or get sued/fined. pfffff

        Can you imagine trying to force ‘accessibility’ in all games alone? thats dumb, stupid, and naive.

    • Windlasher

      Apple has the money. Why not sue the bank that made the app. And if they can’t see the buttons on the app, how the hell are they watching Netflix. This is just a money grab.

      • http://fauxmersion.com/ David Karasek

        Apple is not the bank that made the app. The majority of apps on the market are made by fairly poor indie developers.

      • Windlasher

        SO you didn’t actually READ my post. I said, Apple didn’t make the app and that they should go after the bank that did.

  • lowtolerance

    What a crock of shit. Apple goes way out of their to accommodate people with accessibility issues, and it’s totally unreasonable for any affected group to demand a payout because third-party developers don’t always follow suit.

  • acslater017

    If you read the original Reuters article, it’s a bit more balanced than the selectively chosen lawsuit quote. The article credits Apple with being a longtime ally of the disabled and says that no lawsuit is actively being considered. It also states that the federation realizes it’s better to use a carrot (widening a user base) than a stick (non-compliance).

    The Cult of Mac article does not faithfully represent the thrust of the Reuters piece.

  • Simon Lukas Jaeger

    I happen to be a blind person who thinks the NFB is doing this all wrong. They do not speak for all of us. No, it’s not right that some app developers can get away with making what should be a perfectly usable app into a nightmarish experience for a blind person just because they refuse to put in a couple of labels. But demanding everything to be accessible is completely impossible, and they are short sighted for not seeing this. Pun not entirely intended. Something like Angry Birds could not be accessible because it is a visual game, and making it usable by the blind would mean a complete rewrite. Anyone with common sense would say that they can keep their game and us blind people will just make something we can use, because this has already happened. But there’s always going to be those people who try and push things even farther, and will doubtless try and demand accessibility for this app as well. Ultimately, we need a rating system for accessibility, warnings in apple’s development tools when someone tries to build an app with unlabelled buttons, and just more awareness in general. There’s an occasional developer who just completely refuses to code a button properly and thereby kills our access to an app completely, but those developers are rare, and a situation like that without a backup solution is even more rare. Most people just look at us funny and ask what a Voiceover is, and we point them at the developer documentation, and they fix it, and we’re fine. An automated process that tries to suggest fixes would not be hard to build, and seems like a much easier and more logical approach than trying to just demand all apps be accessible. There are countless apps that are never going to be used by a blind person. There are also many that are, and many more that we would probably use if we could. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding a line of code, sometimes it requires a rewrite. So ultimately, it should be a developer’s decision to make something accessible or not, and it should be our right to make an informed decision about whether to invest in that app before we actually do.

  • flyover

    not just the blind, but the impaired. In the previous version of OS, you could open your browser and click the font size control, bump it up to where you could read it and it would stay that way no matter how many times your changed the page. Since the Mavricks update, you have to manually click it every stinking time you change a page. A real advancement. FIX IT.

    • http://fauxmersion.com/ David Karasek

      You can do this under your accessibility options in your system preferences. And then all browsers and most apps will comply with it.

      • flyover

        It distorts the type. You don’t get the same look. I find it very clunky looking. The old way was much better, it just increased everything instead of resizing the screen format.

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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