Last month, I attended the HopeX, Hackers on Planet Earth conference in New York City. It was a terrific event and I encourage all of my readers to come to the next Hope conference when it happens in 2016. At HopeX, I enjoyed a lot of different talks and I had a lot of fun hanging out in the Lock Picking Village where I was taught how to pick simple locks, a fun hobby for a blind person as everything one needs to do is entirely tactile but hearing little “clicks” helps too.
The first talk I attended at HopeX was presented by a terrific woman whom I would later get the chance to meet. Her name is Gus Andrews (@gusandrews on Twitter]). Gus described a talk at a previous Hope conference given by Eben Moglen, the founder and head of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a man I know reasonably well and someone whom I respect greatly. Moglen described Apple as a “vampire” that lures unsuspecting technology consumers into using its products by providing “sexy” user experiences that makes their technology easy to use while it takes away your information freedoms. Andrews, in her talk, responded to Moglen’s statement by asking the question, Are free software proponents, Stallman, Moglen and others who insist on using GNU/Linux systems the ‘Amish’ of the computer using public?”
Andrews thesis suggests that some people will eschew a nice, comfortable and simple user experience purely because they have some sort of religious obsession or philosophic bent that causes them to choose what is metaphorically similar to an “Amish” experience. They give up a nice and easy user experience, they even pronounce that they prefer a user experience that is less efficient, less “pleasant” as they seem to believe that doing things in a simple and intuitive manner somehow offends their religious fixation with living in the technological equivalent of a hand built survivalist type cabin in the woods where they can live out their fantasies of technological and moral superiority.
This article intends to explore this notion as it may apply to the community of blind people using computational devices.
Corrections and An Apology
In the text that follows, I state that the Microsoft mobile phone platform remained inaccessible. A regular reader sent me a correction on Twitter telling me of the recent release of Windows 8.1 Phone and that the Narrator it comes with is quite a credible screen reader. I haven’t seen one of these yet so I won’t write more about it.
I would like to apologize to readers for using the phrase “Ted Kaczynski cabin” as a metaphor for someone who ives without the standard amenities of modern life. When I wrote that, I was thinking, “off the grid, survivalist sort” and not specifically a man who committed murderous acts of terror, one of which severely injured a man no more than a few blocks from where I sit writing this in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I apologize for using this metaphor, it was insensitive and I’ve changed the article to reflect what I actually meant with that phrase.
Another Expert Gives Up On Android
Marco Zehe works as an accessibility engineer at the Mozilla Foundation. He personally has worked on the excellent accessibility solution provided in FireFox on Android so he knows that operating system both as a user and as a developer. Prior to joining the Mozilla Foundation, Marco worked at Freedom Scientific for a number of years and, in my opinion, was the single most important contributor to the excellent design that the braille support in JAWS has today.
In the summer of 2013, Marco wrote a blog article describing his experience attempting to use an Android based phone for thirty days. In that article, Marco detailed a number of fundamental showstoppers in his use cases; this month (August 2014), Marco tried to repeat the exercise to determine if, indeed, he could use an Android device accessibly, conveniently and effectively in his personal use cases. Marco’s series starts on his blog and, from there, you can find links to the entire series.
Earlier this year, I ran a series of three articles, “Testing Android Accessibility: I Give Up!” “Testing Android Accessibility: A Deaf-Blind Perspective” and “Testing Android Accessibility: The Programmers’ Perspective.” I wrote “I Give Up” and “The Programmers’ Perspective” and a really terrific deaf-blind fellow named Scott wrote the third.
Marco and I took very different approaches to our testing. I followed a system based entirely in objective measures, standards (take a look at the BBC Mobile Accessibility Checklist, it was written by the same team as who created the mobile checklist for Section 508 and it will be US law when GSA is completed with its final acceptance process) and the basics of the science of human factors. I tested every control in every app that ships on a standard tablet from Google looking for anything from unlabeled graphics, objects out of the swipe order and so on. Marco took a very personal use case approach and attempted to do fulfill all of his mobile computing needs with an Android phone. My approach was rigid and refused to take into account applications from third parties; Marco used every resource he could find to try to crate a usable experience for himself. I would flag every unlabeled graphic or control and everything that wasn’t in the swipe order as a failure; Marco would accept that sometimes a blind Android user may need to label controls for himself and poke around with “explore by touch” to find items that aren’t in the tab order. I slammed Google for refusing to include accessibility in its automated testing processes as, virtually all of the problems I had found could be discovered by an automated testing tool simply and corrected easily and inexpensively; Marco took an approach that ignored Google’s failed software engineering processes and only explored the user experience itself.
Quite obviously, Marco and I viewed the task of testing Android accessibility very differently. I did as I do and stuck to published requirements and known best practices; Marco took a user centric approach and listened to advice from people on the Eyes Free mailing list on third party applications that can, in their opinion, replace the broken apps that carry the Google brand name. The most surprising thing is that, given the radically different ways Marco and I looked at the platform, we came to the same conclusion and even used nearly identical same vocabulary to describe Android’s failed accessibility experience, namely, “I give up, in my case, and “I Quit,” in Marco’s.”
I wrote the first article in my series with the title, “I Give Up!” Marco wrote the eighteenth in his series and titled it, “I Quit!” My articles were widely criticized by blind Android enthusiasts for taking a standards based approach (something I documented in an article called “Standards Are Important”) as they all asked why I didn’t try a variety of third party apps that I could use in a moderately to very accessible manner. My answer was that I was only testing the out-of-the-box system sold by Google.
Marco’s work should end this controversy. Android accessibility failed both objective and subjective testing procedures performed and reviewed by noted accessibility experts.
The Blind Amish
In preparation for writing this article today, I went to Marco’s blog yesterday and reread each of his eighteen days of trying to live with an Android phone for thirty days before giving up and reading all of the comments written by his readers.. One comment jumped out at me. It’s author stated very eloquently that the people who hang out on the Eyes Free mailing list often say that blind Android users need to “be patient” and to “wait for Google to catch up.” The person who posted the comment and I seem to share the same opinion, “why suffer an inefficient and unpleasant user experience when there are good and excellent alternatives?” and “Why decide to be Amish in your technology choices?” Blind users of mobile devices already have two good choices for tablets (Apple and Microsoft) and, now, with the release of Windows 8.1 there’s choice on a mobile phone.
Let’s consider the notion that, indeed, Android is an actual choice when it’s accessibility is so fundamentally broken, even when one allows for using a bunch of third party apps to do what a sighted person can do with their Nexus or other Android device in the first few seconds of ownership. Is living without indoor plumbing, a hot water heater and all of the other comforts the Amish reject a true lifestyle choice? Is going through what Marco and I experienced in our testing of an Android device, when compared to iOS and Windows 8.1 on a tablet, really a “choice” when the interface is so inefficient? As Marco demonstrated, it is impossible for an expert level blind technology user, a person who invented a whole lot of things the rest of we blind people use every day, to live with an Android device for a month, let alone as a permanent solution. Given all of this, I can only conclude that, no, Android is not a choice at all.
If you like living in the technological equivalent of an Amish community, a system that requires far more effort and provides profoundly less comfort than the alternative, please go right ahead and do so, just don’t tell the rest of the world that your choice is “accessible” when, in fact, it’s really only marginally useful when compared to the state-of-the-art. When you claim that something is “accessible” when, in reality, it is not, you only encourage companies with a history of poor accessibility to continue being poor as they will find some blind Amish willing to state that virtually anything that talks at all is accessible. By claiming that Android is accessible, you make the work of accessibility professionals and advocates much harder as we then need to convince our clients that the truth of the Android accessibility experience is that they will fail all known regulations without doing profoundly more work than they would need to in order to make an app accessible on the Apple and Microsoft operating systems.
What About Other OS?
Almost every day, I have cause to use iOS/7 on my phone, OS X Yosemite beta on my laptop, Windows 8.1 on a convertible I got about a year ago and Ubuntu GNU/Linux via a command line via ssh and in a virtual machine on my Macintosh. I tried to live with an Android device for three months and, finally, I gave up on it. Of these operating systems, I feel that, regarding accessibility, iOS/7 is the most comprehensive with 100% (when rounded to integers) of its features, when measured objectively, are accessible not just to a blind person but to people with a panoply of disabilities. Windows 8.1 comes in second but I take away points for a relatively small number of stock items I found that had accessibility problems but, more so, because its built-in screen reader, Microsoft Narrator, remains sorely substandard when compared to the state-of-the-art coming from third party screen readers like NVDA and JAWS. I’d put OS X in third place based upon the official Mavericks release (it’s what I’ve been using for most of the past year) and, for now, I’ll reserve comment on the Yosemite beta as I signed their non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and I’m a bit of a stickler for obeying contracts I’ve signed. This leaves the GNU/Linux experience in dead last place as I’d also say that my Android experience was more pleasant than most of what I deal with daily in Gnome with Orca.
Gus Andrews said of all GNU/Linux users that they seem to be the Amish of the mainstream technology community. I’ll say that, in addition to android, GNU/Linux using blind people, especially those who use the Gnome windowing system, are the Amish of our community.
No matter how an expert tests accessibility on Android or GNU/Linux, whether it’s me doing an objective, standards based approach, if it’s Marco doing a user based subjective set of tests or the programmers who I used as sources on the “Programmers’ Perspective” article just trying to do their jobs, Android and GNU/Linux are accessibility outposts.
Some will argue that Android can save a user some money but so can going off the grid and living in an off the grid survivalist cabin in the hills. There are many ways people can save money but why go Amish on us to save a few bucks? If you believe your time is valuable, why spend so much more configuring a system when Microsoft and Apple provide excellent choices out-of-the-box?
So, don’t live in a cabin in the woods, come into modernity and enjoy mobile devices from companies who take accessibility so seriously that they actually deliver it today.