As I sit here typing this story in San Francisco, I hear two voices playing in my head. The first, as the title might imply, is the voice of the late great Freddy Mercury singing his anthemic , “We Are The Champions.” While, by the late seventies, I had sold my soul to punk and CBGB became my cathedral, Queen remained one of my favorite rock acts and I took every opportunity I could to see them perform when they came to New York, my then home.
The second voice is that of Jerry Garcia singing the line, “Nothing shaking down on Shakedown Street.” While I enjoyed the party atmosphere at the many Grateful Dead shows I attended, I must admit to having never been much of a fan of their music. “Shakedown Street” wasn’t one of their more memorable records but, when I look at the sponsors list for the 2015 NFB convention, I hear Jerry singing that line loudly and repeatedly.
This article will simply list a number of the corporate sponsors of the two conventions that many blind people will attend this week and discuss their records on accessibility. I will also explore the terms used by NFB especially regarding one company with a terrible history of delivering accessible products to the market and, in general, will focus more on NFB than ACB as having read both sponsor lists, there’s only one ACB sponsor that I know to have a poor record on accessibility. I must also admit that there are companies on both the ACB and NFB sponsor lists about which I know absolutely nothing so will reserve comment on those organizations as I’m too lazy to look them all up.
The Definitions Of “Champion”
When I lost the last of my vision, nobody told me that screen readers existed so I made a really crappy one for myself on Macintosh and enrolled at Harvard University to study English with a focus on creative writing. Ted Henter called and offered me the top job on the software side of Henter-Joyce so I dropped out of the program and moved to Florida to take the lead on JAWS. I still have a passion for the English language and the words we use to describe different things in it. I’m a pretty hardcore word nerd and understand that the word “champion” has two definitions.
The first and by far the most common definition of the word tends to be a noun that means “winner.” The San Francisco Giants are the reigning champions of baseball because they won the 2014 World Series. Mohammad Ali became the world’s boxing champion when he defeated the reigning one. This is the definition about which Freddy was singing and is the definition we use in most common speaking and writing.
The second definition of “champion” means one who promotes a cause. I’ve a friend who is a member of the British Parliament whose primary cause is pedestrian safety. She is a “champion of traffic related accessibility” but neither she alone nor her party can get the entire UK to accept her proposals. So, my friend, using the verb form of this definition, “champions accessibility” and tries to be an agent for change but, as she would admit herself, she is not yet a “winner” on this cause.
If one googles on “NFB convention 2015 sponsors,” they will see that Google is listed on the NFB web site as “accessibility champions” and, for ACB, Google is a “Diamond Level” sponsor. I’ll accept that “diamond” can simply mean “expensive” which is an honest description of what Google does regarding accessibility, they pay a lot of money to be prominently featured at the ACB convention. Using the term “accessibility champion” to describe Google boggles the mind when we apply the first and more common definition of the word “champion” as, from my own testing and that of many others, Google has zero devices, applications or web properties that carry their brand name that are 100% accessible, a sharp contrast to Apple who, especially on iOS, has nearly zero accessibility defects in apps bearing its brand name. How then can NFB apply the word “champion” to Google?
This leads us to definition number two: even I, a noted critic of Google’s accessibility, will admit that Google does “champion” accessibility. They certainly spend a lot of time and money attending conferences like CSUN and the NFB and ACB summer conventions. They even announced a $30 million fund to promote accessibility research at non-profit centers. What they fail at doing, even using the less common definition of the word “champion,” is to actually produce anything that is accessible from end to end. They are very good at talking about accessibility and tossing around the bucks but, if they can’t make their own products accessible, do they have any credibility when they tell others to do so?
Money Talks, Accessibility Walks
ACB and NFB will be featuring Google prominently at their conventions while their membership are mostly using Apple devices, a company that NFB takes any opportunity to slam. If I had my way, Google would not spend a penny on coming to conferences and conventions only to toss a spectacular party and tell people what they may do in the future. I’d recommend that Google take the money they use to build a smoke screen of support for accessibility and instead spend it on programmers and quality assurance engineers in their accessibility department. When they’re mostly done with the job, then come to the conventions and show us something interesting and fully accessible that exists in the present instead of telling us more about an uncertain and, given their track record, improbable future.
That NFB allows Google to carry the title “Accessibility Champion” is profoundly misleading and, given the marketshare numbers, also entirely false. My challenge to my friends who remain members of NFB is to ask the following question of everyone they see at the convention, “What mobile devices do you use daily?” I will wager that more than 75% will be using an iOS device with the rest either still carrying an old Symbian phone running Talx and a handful of fanatics carrying an Android device. NFB has crowned Google “the champion” while the vast majority of their own membership ignores them and buys the truly accessible solutions instead. Ask the same question at ACB and I predict similar results.
Next, ask whether they have an AppleTV, a Macintosh, a Windows machine or even the impressively accessible FireFox OS phone. Ask if they use anything Google other than the search engine and, again, I’ll wager that you will be hard pressed to find anyone there who uses such. NFB and ACB are not just promoting poor accessibility, their leadership is entirely out of step with the hearts, minds and wallets of their membership. Apple stuff is expensive but it appears, based on published market numbers, to hold an enormous lead over all other operating environments on mobile devices. If anyone is the “accessibility champion,” using the more common definition of the word, it’s Apple, they are winning in the market and doing so by enormous margins.
The NFB Sponsors
After going to the NFB web site and reading the names of its sponsors, I identified a number who aren’t just bad actors on the accessibility stage but, rather, also seem antagonistic to the cause. I read the entire list of ACB convention sponsors as well and, with them, only Google stood out as an accessibility bad guy. At the same time, I’m very willing to bet that NFB raised much more money by sleeping with the enemy.
If you need more than I wrote above for why neither of the major advocacy organizations should allow Google to even present, let alone carry a title like “Diamond” or “Accessibility Champion,” all I ask is that you sit down with an iOS device and an Android one. Do something very simple, count the number of inaccessible things you find, count the number of accessible things you find, divide the latter by the former and you get a score. The Giants won the World Series by scoring more runs in four of the games than did the Kansas City Royals; let’s crown accessibility champions with an objective measure as well.
To be perfectly clear, I think Google may be on the right track regarding accessibility. Hiring Victor Tsaran on the engineering side of the effort spoke volumes to me as he’s a guy with a long history of actually making things accessible at big corporations. The $30 million fund to promote accessibility research is a wonderful thing and I’m very happy to see Google investing so much in this area.
Google isn’t as bad as it was a year ago and it deserves credit for its progress but, as it sits in third or fourth place in any quantitative analysis of accessibility of its actual products, it’s years from being a definition one champion.
I know a lot of blind people who enjoy Uber and I don’t fault them for using the service. But, for NFB to permit a company to enjoy the publicity that one can derive from sponsoring an NFB convention, they might first check if that company is trying to defend itself in an ADA lawsuit involving blind people. Uber, unlike Lyft (also an NFB convention sponsor that I’ll talk about later in this piece) refuses to have a zero tolerance policy regarding service animals, including guide dogs. As I’m a guide dog handler, I won’t even install the Uber app as I don’t know whether or not some asshole driver will simply ditch me and, as Uber has no process for filing complaints about this offense, they are agents of discrimination.. But, it’s NFB, where no one really cares much about we guide dog people.
If, as a blind individual who isn’t a guide dog handler, you make a personal decision to use their service, I’ve no problem with your choice. Uber is very convenient and I’m told it’s less expensive than Lyft, its primary competitor. For NFB, a nationally recognized organization, to allow a company with this black spot on their record who continues to refuse to simply change a policy to require their drivers to accept my dog and I to use their service is further evidence of the prostitution of the National Federation of the Blind. I don’t think that allowing such an endorsement is anything more than a cynical grab for cash and it makes NFB appear terribly inconsistent in a very public manner.
Many years ago, Peter Korn and Marney Beard together built what, to this day, I think was the strongest and most talented accessibility engineering team ever. They did this at Sun Microsystems, before Oracle acquired that company. Oracle’s first act involving accessibility was to give Peter a promotion while, simultaneously, either laying off or reassigning the rest of the team, leaving Peter with a nice title and nearly zero resources to do the actual work. Oracle has not recovered in accessibility in the time since.
At CSUN this year, an Oracle presentation suggested that a blind person in a job should not only know how to do their job properly but also be experts in using a screen reader and, on top of that, be able to report accessibility bugs in the software they’re trying to use to do their jobs. After the session, I asked the Oracle accessibility manager the question, “Are you really expecting a blind call center employee earning $8.25 per hour to be able to do jQuery accessibility call outs?” He said, “Yes.” I asked, “Where on Earth is someone earning eight and a quarter per hour with such skills?” He said, “We have them working of us at Oracle in our call centers.” I can’t recall what I said next as my brain was exploding. What I wish I had said was, “If you have blind people working for eight dollars and twenty five cents per hour who can do jQuery accessibility call outs, please ask them to call me as I’ll pay them no less than $40 per hour to do this kind of work for our clients.” In fact, if you’re a blind person out there with these skills and you’re only earning minimum wage doing something else, please send your resume to 3 Mouse Technology (3MT), Prime Access Consulting (PAC), SSB/Bart, Deque Systems, TPG, WebAIM or any of the other accessibility remediation contract services companies in the business and I promise that one of these groups will find you to be a compelling candidate for a much higher paying job with a promising future.
Blind people already need to work harder than their sighted peers. It’s more difficult for us to get to work in most parts of the world, we need to learn the screen reader commands on top of the applications we need to use to do our jobs and, even then, using a screen reader to access information remains far less efficient than using the same application visually. Now, Oracle is saying that, on top of the other hassles that come with being blind and holding a full time job that all of us should also be highly qualified accessibility quality assurance engineers.
My conversation with this gentleman continued. I said, “Oracle and its subsidiaries have a horrible record regarding publishing accessible software.” His response, “Products need to ship, we need to make money, we can’t slip the ship dates.” Which, in brief can be translated as, “Oracle says, ‘Money talks, accessibility walks.
Worse, though, suggesting that accessibility slows down product releases is entirely fallacious. Building accessibility is not a burden, it’s an alternative implementation strategy that actually benefits developers in a myriad of ways in the long run. Having such a strategy would benefit Oracle greatly but they have strange priorities I guess.’
Any Good Guys In The Mix?
Not all of the NFB sponsors are accessibility bad guys. In this section, I’ll highlight some of the good guys on the NFB sponsor list. Excepting the NVAccess Foundation, I don’t think any business or organization is a perfect example of how accessibility should be done but those I mention in this section do better than most and I’m happy to see them featured at the NFB convention.
As I wrote in my CSUN 2015 report, Target, after settling its lawsuit with NFB has taken accessibility research to a higher level than I’ve ever seen from a major company. In brief, Target is doing user experience (UX) and usability testing of their branded technologies to ensure an efficient experience for users with disabilities in the future. While the Target web site isn’t ideally accessible, it’s pretty darn good and I’m glad to see that they’re working in a solid way to affect these changes across their company.
I use Dropbox daily. Most of my blind friends do so as well. Unlike the peculiar interfaces for other cloud services, Dropbox acts like just another folder on your system and is entirely accessible on one’s local system. Dropbox has accessibility problems on their web site and I hope they get such fixed as soon as possible but, compared to anything from Google, the guys at Dropbox get things mostly right.
My friend and President of Prime Access consulting, Sina Bahram, has an insider perspective on accessibility at Dropbox and said, “in their most recent IOS app update, Dropbox dedicated 100% of the update and their changelog for it to accessibility. This is a super classy move by a prominent technology company. My kudos to the various Dropbox teams who work on improving accessibility on a daily basis.”
Any regular reader of this blog or my BlindConfidential one before it, knows that I’m a vocal critic of Freedom Scientific for many different reasons. For some blind people, though, JAWS remains the only screen reader they can use to access some things they need to do their job. There’s an enormous body of JAWS scripts written at job sites around the world to support oddball proprietary software used only at that single company. If JAWS were to disappear tomorrow, a lot of blind people would lose their livelihoods and, for this reason alone, I put FS into the good guys column in this discussion.
Like FS, Humanware makes technology that a lot of blind people enjoy using. Unlike FS, I haven’t a lot of perspective into how they do things but have a generally good opinion of them. I think blind ghetto products are vastly too expensive and wish that we could enjoy the mainstream economies of scale but, for some blind people, a proprietary notetaker provides a solution they enjoy more than off-the-shelf products and I’m happy that Humanware serves this sub-population well.
As I mention above, I have a big problem with Uber for its lack of a zero tolerance policy regarding refusing service animals. Lyft is exactly the opposite, if one driver refuses one blind person with one dog a ride once, he or she will be fired immediately. Lyft has similar policies regarding sexual harassment of its passengers by drivers and prides itself on being the “friendly ride sharing service.” As I’ve a dog, I won’t even install the Uber app as, having been ditched by taxi drivers who were ostensibly regulated by local ordinances, I will not subject myself to getting ditched by an unregulated system that seems to refuse to regulate itself. I like Lyft and don’t mind spending a few extra bucks where it is more expensive than Uber.
One friend of mine to whom I spoke before writing this piece said, “Think of Uber as Microsoft in the bad old days and Lyft as Apple. Uber only cares about growth and global domination while Lyft is willing to grow more slowly and focus on customer experience.
The Apple Strategy?
As I wrote in “The Hands That Feed” and in other articles since, NFB has a bizarre and pathological stance regarding Apple. Most recently, NFB published an article by a sighted employee of their’s who tried to use VoiceOver on iOS for 40 days. Her conclusions were that the experience for a blind person isn’t as nice as it is for a sighted person. On its own, this sentence is entirely true but, in the absence of context, it’s entirely fallacious. If the author spent 40 days with an iOS device, 40 days with an Android device, 40 days with FireFox OS, 40 days with Windows and so on and wrote up her conclusions in context, the sentence might have instead read, “There’s no system on any major platform in which a blind person enjoys as rich an experience as do sighted users of the same but iOS comes closer than any other.” So, while her first conclusions are true, out of context, they are simply meaningless. I’d love perfect accessibility on all platforms but, as of today, accessibility isn’t perfect anywhere but Apple, on iOS, comes closer than any other team has ever come to providing 100% accessibility out-of-the-box.
It’s clear to everyone watching that Apple can afford to buy the “accessibility champion” title from NFB as it’s obviously for sale and Apple isn’t wanting for cash. They could be a sponsor at any other level as well. Apple instead chooses to simply ignore NFB and they’ve won the marketshare battles among blind users. If Apple, the leader in out-of-the-box accessibility refuses to engage with NFB, is NFB relevant in any substantive manner on issues regarding technological accessibility? NFB continues to snipe at Apple but Apple, while refusing to bend over for the biggest advocacy organization representing our population, has demonstrated that NFB is little more than a straw dog.
One person highly placed in corporate accessibility, under conditions of anonymity, said, “NFB is like the North Korea of accessibility; they’re dangerous enough that you need to keep an eye on them but, on any global scale, they’re irrelevant.” This seems to be the Apple attitude as well, make the best accessibility you can, let the NFB piss and moan that you don’t pay them their patronage but, in the long run, win the hearts and minds of our community. One becomes “champion” by delivering excellent products with excellent accessibility, not by paying off the NFB.
This article pretty well summarizes itself, what can we conclude other than the NFB is a cynical and money hungry organization willing to sleep with the enemy. The NFB, by allowing organizations with horrific records on accessibility to even be present demonstrates that, once again, NFB is saying, “Money talks, accessibility walks.”
If I was going to crown an accessibility champion for 2015, I would be torn between a number of excellent choices. I might start with Christopher “Q” Toth and Tyler Spivey for delivering the free and open source NVDA Remote Access plug-in funded entirely by community donations. I would definitely include my good friend Sina Bahram for his work making MathPlayer accessible with NVDA. I would include Marco Zehe and the accessibility team at Mozilla Foundation for their excellent effort on FireFox OS. I’d include my friend Howard Kaplan for building a low vision oriented book reading app called SpotlightText based in the actual science of retina disorders rather than just picking the most popular features from those that already exist. I’d include the NVAccess Foundation for its continued commitment to free and open source accessibility. I’d include the Apple accessibility team for fixing a lot of the VoiceOver related bugs in more recent iOS updates. I might even include Freedom Scientific for its offering JAWS at a reasonable price during the NFB convention.
Perhaps we shouldn’t crown a champion at all, instead, let’s call it an all star team on which all of those I mention in the previous paragraph would be included. Please, add your favorite accessibility all-stars in the comments section. I’d love to hear some more stories about the good guys in this game.
I would not, however, include Google, Uber, Oracle or the other bad actors that NFB is willing to sleep with. Maybe I’m too much of a purist, maybe I ask for too much but, as the good guys are already delivering excellent solutions today, why celebrate companies like Google and Oracle who, while having enough money to do anything they choose, choose not to do accessibility properly?