A few years ago, when I still wrote my now defunct blog, Blind Confidential, I posted an article called, “The Model T Syndrome” in which I blasted Android accessibility for being sorely substandard. Recently, my old buddy and fellow Freedom Scientific refugee, Marco Zehe wrote an excellent piece called “Switching to Android Full Time,” in which he, with great detail, discusses his attempt to use an Android based phone after having been an iPhone user for four years. Rather than repeating all of the problems here, I recommend you read Marco’s item if you care to learn all of the details of how and why Android is an inferior system to iOS.
Today, I will not write about specifics of any particular technology, there’s plenty of places a blind person can read detailed reviews of virtually all things out there that claim to be accessible. Instead, I want to explore the questions, “Why are blind people willing to accept and even celebrate substandard accessibility?” and “What is the difference between usable and actually accessible?”
The Model T Syndrome
If General Motors or any other automobile company came out with a new model that, technologically, was similar to the ancient Ford Model T, everyone who considered the vehicle would laugh out loud. When Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other hugely wealthy and powerful corporations release a screen reader with functionality similar to JAWS for Windows 1.0, though, the community of people with print impairments send out celebratory tweets, write complimentary blog posts and describe such as “progress,.” Why do we, as a community, accept technology that is third rate and, more so, why would we celebrate a major step backward in accessibility just because it is there?
To me, if a new screen reader comes out on a mobile device that is even slightly less functional than Apple’s VoiceOver on its iOS devices, it should immediately be condemned by our community in the same way that motorists would condemn a new Model T arriving at their local auto show.
Amazon and Accessibility
Earlier this week, I posted an article here in which I celebrated a number of different ways we can now access books and other publications on our iOS devices. This year, we’ve seen some new software releases that expand our possibilities a lot and, indeed, this is real progress.
On the same day that the NLS BARD Mobile app was released to the Apple AppStore, Amazon announced its new Kindle Fire tablet devices. One section of their press release proudly announced that Kindle Fire now has a screen reader and that the device was “accessible” to people with vision impairment.
I’m a skeptic, blogger and occasional journalist so, instead of celebrating the new Amazon screen reader, I went off to find some blind people who had beta tested this device for Amazon and learned almost immediately that it is actually less accessible than standard Android devices with the single exception that a user with vision impairment can read Kindle content on a Fire. I also learned that many of the apps that ship standard on a Fire, apps entirely under the control of Amazon engineers, remain inaccessible. While I’ve still not touched one of these units (they aren’t in stores yet), the information I could glean from beta testers tells me that Amazon has released a Model T era screen reader and, we, as a community, should condemn them for asserting that their device is accessible when, in fact, it is partially so at best.
By advertising that the Kindle Fire is accessible, Amazon is lying to our community and, in reality, is doing nothing more than making a pathetic attempt to comply with legislation like 21st Century Video and Communications Act of 2010 (CVAA) while ignoring the spirit of the law, namely, that all mobile technology must be accessible by October 2013.
Usable Versus Accessible
Some blind people, especially those who choose to use Android devices, will claim that these are accessible. I can’t disagree more. Apple’s iOS devices are accessible out-of-the-box, Android systems are, at best, usable in some areas but, on a systemic level, not truly accessible.
What, you ask, is the difference between accessible and usable? To me, a system can be described as “usable” if some but not all of its features can be accessed by a person with a print impairment but may require a workaround, may contain unlabeled buttons which, of course, one can memorize or create a dictionary entry for, may require the user to guess at what something does and some to many of its standard features are not fully accessible. A blind person who gets a new iPhone can use every feature that Apple includes by default on iOS; this is absolutely not true for Android or Kindle Fire so, while they may be partially usable, they are absolutely not accessible.
In fact, Google, Microsoft and, now, Amazon are perpetrating a crime against our community by even claiming that their devices are accessible. By making such a pronouncement, blind people less plugged into the technology community will easily be fooled into buying such a device and, when they get it home, in many cases,, they can’t even turn the accessibility on without sighted assistance.
(Author’s note: After writing and posting the original version of this post earlier today, I have learned that some Android devices do have features that allow a blind user to set it up independently. I’ve also learned that some Android devices have proprietary “skins” that can break accessibility badly. If you plan on exploring Android, make sure you get one that is endorsed by another blind person.)
What Is Real Accessibility?
In my mind, Apple is the only company that provides an experience for users with print impairments that can be described as accessible right out-of-the-box. If you buy a new Macintosh, you plug in the power cord, turn it on, wait a couple of minutes and, if you haven’t done anything to suggest you can see the screen, it will start talking on its own. This is not true for Windows or standard distributions of GNU/Linux based computers so they are not actually accessible to someone who may need to set things up without sighted assistance.
Apple’s handheld devices, iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch do not start talking automatically but all a user needs to do on iOS 6 or earlier is to triple click the home button or, on iOS 7, ask Siri to turn VoiceOver on and speech and braille starts. This is not true for Windows Phone, Android, Kindle Fire or any other handheld devices on the market so, no mobile devices other than those from Apple are fully accessible either.
The question returns to, why, if Apple has set the standard, does every other OS vendor choose to provide a Model T level of support when a brand new Cadillac is available from their competition? More to the point, why would any screen reader user be willing to accept and even celebrate such substandard support in a device?
The Gratitude of Blind People
When I first started working for Henter-Joyce, Ted Henter taught me that access technology does not “help” anyone and that we should not expect users to be grateful because we sold them a tool. If a sighted person goes to Sears to buy a chainsaw, they don’t run around thanking Craftsman for helping them. If the person uses their new chainsaw to prune their trees, they’ve helped themselves; if they leave the saw in the shed to rust no one has been helped at all. A screen reader is a tool that people with print impairments can use for a variety of purposes, including helping themselves but the vendor of such software hasn’t helped them by accepting their hard earned dollars in payment for said tool.
Nonetheless, while working at HJ/FS, I received countless thank you notes from users for working on a tool that they paid a lot of money to buy. Why do we thank vendors for selling us a tool? I didn’t thank the company that made my electric toothbrush, coffee maker or stereo so why, pray tell, would I thank Apple for making my screen readers?
Some gratitude is well placed. The guys who make the NVDA screen reader and my free software hacking buddy, Joanie Diggs work for activist wages and spend a huge amount of their personal time attempting to improve free screen readers. These people aren’t selling anything but, rather, doing this important work because they know it’s the right thing to do. Please do thank these folks if you use these programs.
Accessibility Is Not A Favor
I believe that many blind people think that accessibility is, somehow, not an integral part of technology and, when it is there, it only exists due to the kindness of a developer. This community acts as if accessibility is a favor being done for us by a profit making corporation and that we should be grateful that it’s there at all.
The United States Department of Justice has ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to web sites. Accessibility is not a favor or something nice a technology company provides if they want to, it is the law. Accessibility is a basic human right, there are no technological barriers to full accessibility anymore and, as it is now our right, it is an essential component of any technology product. If it is not included in the design of the software from day one, the company making such technology is intentionally discriminating against our population and should face legal action for doing so if they do not take on a rumination task immediately.
There is (with the exceptions above) no reason to thank anyone for making their technology accessible and it is essential that we condemn as discriminatory any company that either is not fully accessible today or willing to provide the community with its remediation plan, including schedule immediately.
Soon, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will issue its rules for enforcing CVAA. Until such rules are officially in place, we cannot know exactly what will and will not be covered by this important bit of civil rights legislation. One piece we do know, however, is that all mobile communications devices (mobile phones, tablets, and the like) must be accessible. As a community, it is essential that we insist that the definition of “accessible” be as broad as possible, accepting that Apple’s iOS level of accessibility is the minimum standard for anything that attempts to use the word “accessible” in its advertising. If we accept marginal usability as “accessible” we remove any incentive for Google, Microsoft or Amazon to become actually so. Substandard accessibility is the “whites only” sign of the 21st Century and we must refuse it entirely or live with it forever.
Apple, especially in its mobile devices, is today’s leader in out-of-the-box accessibility. Macintosh accessibility, however, is no better than adequate but, compared to what Microsoft provides, it is really quite good. A Windows user can do better if they install either the free NVDA or one of the high priced screen readers from access technology companies and, for most users, the Windows/NVDA combination is an excellent choice and has a terrific price/performance ratio.
People who need accessible technologies must insist on true accessibility, rejecting all substandard solutions as using such will only encourage substandard accessibility in the future.
People who use access technology must understand that second rate accessibility is tantamount to discrimination and, rather than celebrating such as progress, should reject it out of hand.
claiming that substandard accessibility is good because it provides “choice” is a failed argument as said “choices” will never be accessible if we, as a community, accept such.
Gratitude for any tool sold to us is misplaced. Accessibility is not a favor, it’s a right!