Can Apple, Should Apple, Mandate iOS App Accessibility? #NFB14

I’d like to invite you for a moment to imagine an exciting future.
It’s June 2015. There’s much speculation about what Tim Cook and his team are about to say at the Worldwide Developers’ Conference. We know we’ll see some cool new features revealed as the lid is lifted off iOS 9, but this conference often serves up some surprises. After all, who’d have thought this time in 2014 we’d have all these great third-party keyboards to choose from that work right across the operating system. Will there be any surprises this year?
Like many thousands of others, the most enthusiastic blind iOS users are tuned into the stream of the event. After reacting with delight at some of the useful new features in iOS 9, you can hear a pin drop as Tim Cook comes back to the stage to say the following.

The App Store has well over 1.5 million apps, changing the way people live, work and play. At Apple, we partner with you to change the world, to make everyone’s lives better.

We give you the tools you need to make gorgeous, highly functional apps. Last year, we introduced extensibility, meaning your apps can perform more functions across the system than ever, while retaining security and a standard of quality our customers love and expect. We take the time to review each app you submit to us, because with Apple, it’s never been just about quantity. We pride ourselves on delivering customers  the very best user experience, exceeding their expectations.

We’re not going to allow apps into our store that serve no useful purpose, that pose security risks, that aren’t family-friendly. And of course, we proudly deplore all hate speech and will play no part in distributing it. There are a bunch of other Guidelines we ask you to adhere to, because we believe they create the very best user experience of any such store.

We’ve never been about just making money. We’re about making the world better. Now we’re adding a critical priority to our list of Guidelines.
Today, I’m announcing an initiative to ensure that more of the apps you make, and which we then distribute, are useable by even more of our customers. As Apple’s CEO, I’m announcing this myself, because it’s something about which I feel passionate. It’s about a principle embedded in our very DNA.

You’ll remember in 2013, I stood up at a shareholder’s meeting and said that Apple is about more than the return on investment. We make great products everyone can use. That’s what guides us, that’s what drives us. At that meeting, I mentioned the work we do to make iOS accessible to blind people. We ushered in a revolution when we introduced VoiceOver to iOS with the introduction of the 3GS in 2009, and we’re not done yet. 

 

(Excited, anticipatory applause from the crowd).

 

Together, the developers at Apple, and all of you, our community of third-party developers, we build things. And there are certain obligations that are sometimes required of us when we build things. If we were constructing a public building, we’d have to make it accessible, because it must be used by all members of the public. That includes ensuring the environment is accessible to those who use wheelchairs. Once, people thought of this as an irritant, and inconvenience. Now we celebrate that it’s about inclusion, about integration. Sure, it’s now the law, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, but most of us realise now that it’s just the right thing.
Many of you already know about the revenue to be gained from making your apps VoiceOver accessible. We’ve given you the tools you need and shown you how easy it is. But it’s not all about revenue. Just as Apple isn’t all about the return on investment, the fact is, if you want to be a part of our community, you’re a part of all of our community. That means doing the right thing by all our users.
Starting today, we’re launching a new initiative called “Inclusivity”. Beginning today, all apps we select for profiling in feature sections of the App Store must be VoiceOver accessible. We no longer consider it appropriate that an app we feature, potentially earning you considerable sales, can’t be used by all our users.
If you would like your app to be featured in the Store, we’d urge you to verify that your app is accessible as soon as possible. To help you do this, we’ve invested in the creation of an app accessibility helpdesk. Available via online chat, email and on a toll free number, this helpdesk is staffed by skilled developers who’ll work with you to ensure your app doesn’t discriminate.
Finally, starting with the release of iOS 10, in the fall of 2016, your submitted app will be declined by the App Store, unless it is accessible. We’re giving you plenty of notice of this change, around 15 months, so you can do what needs to be done. However, once you begin looking into how easy it is to make this change, I’m confident that by WWDC 2016, I’ll be able to report a stunning increase in the number of accessible apps. I believe in all of you.
We know not every app in the store can be accessible. Our new Guidelines make it clear that if your app’s fundamental purpose is non-textual, such as an arcade game, it may not be possible to make the app work with VoiceOver. We’ll work with developers to fine-tune the Guidelines, but we want to stress that exemptions from the accessibility requirement are the exception.
Because this is such a big change, I want to anticipate some of your concerns and address them now from the stage.

If you develop for other platforms, you may be asking why those other platforms aren’t requiring this of you. Apple has always dared to “think different”. Other app distributions systems are a jungle. You may grumble about some of our restrictions from time to time, but you know also that what we offer you and our customers is unambiguity and certainty. There’s one place to go to get your iOS apps. There’s a certain quality customers can expect. And now, customers can expect an app to be accessible. In those rare cases where an exemption to the accessibility requirement has been granted, the description in the App Store will reflect this.
Leadership is a privilege, and I can think of no greater privilege than to lead this great company. We’ve changed the world many times. We’ve made it a better place. And today, together, we’re making history again, we’re demonstrating leadership, for people who far too often are the last consideration when software’s being designed, if they’re ever considered at all. I feel good about that. It’s the right thing”. And you just watch our competitors scramble to catch up.

 

The crowd rises to its feet.
A pipe dream? It needn’t be. Social networks are full of debate about a proposed resolution at one of the US consumer organisations, the National Federation of the Blind, on the subject of iOS app accessibility. I think it’s appropriate not to be instantly reactionary, and to think of what might be achieved.
Here’s the text of what will be debated by the National Federation of the Blind later in the week.

 

WHEREAS, Apple Inc. has made VoiceOver, a free and powerful screen-access program, an integral part of many of its products, including the Apple Inc. Macintosh, iPhone, iPod Touch, Apple Inc. TV, and iPad; and

WHEREAS, although VoiceOver has the ability to enable nonvisual access to hundreds of thousands of applications that are available today through these platforms, such access cannot be achieved unless the applications are written to provide VoiceOver with the information it needs to tell the blind user what he or she needs to know; and

WHEREAS, through presentations at developer conferences, specific guidance issued in programming guides, and application programming interfaces that are simple to implement, Apple Inc. has made it easy for application developers to incorporate accessibility features for VoiceOver users into their programs; and

WHEREAS, despite Apple Inc.’s efforts to encourage accessibility, too many applications are still not accessible to VoiceOver users because buttons are not properly labelled, images of text cannot be interpreted, and other display elements cannot even be detected by VoiceOver; and

WHEREAS, although Apple Inc. has given VoiceOver users the tools to assign labels to unlabelled elements on their own, a growing number of applications that have been released cannot be made accessible using these tools; and

WHEREAS, even if the current version of an application is accessible to a blind VoiceOver user, Apple Inc. has no policy, procedure, or mechanism in place to ensure that this accessibility will be maintained when a subsequent version is released; and

WHEREAS, not only are inaccessible applications inconvenient for the blind VoiceOver user, but they can also prevent a blind person from independently performing the duties of his/her job; and

WHEREAS, Apple Inc. is not reluctant to place requirements and prohibitions on application developers, but has not seen fit to require that applications be accessible to VoiceOver users; and

WHEREAS, making products accessible to users of VoiceOver should be as important as any other requirement imposed on application developers: Now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this fifth day of July, 2014, in the City of Orlando, Florida, that this organization call upon Apple Inc. to work with the National Federation of the Blind to create and enforce policies, standards, and procedures to ensure the accessibility of all apps, including core apps distributed by Apple in the base iOS distribution, and to ensure that accessibility is not lost when an app is updated.

 

For some years, I was president of the New Zealand equivalent of the NFB, and have also worked in government relations. I know first-hand that great advocacy victories don’t come from mediocrity. We have to dare to dream, to have a vision of what comes next, and to aim high.
Some have said that we should be grateful for the progress that has been made. Personally, I am – extremely so. But gratitude and a desire to move even further forward aren’t mutually exclusive. I can tell you this. We wouldn’t be where we are today if past and present leaders were content to be grateful for what we have without looking ahead. Apple’s uniquely hands-on approach to its App Store provides the opportunity to create a true game changer, making accessibility a requirement in most cases, not a nice thing to do.
Apple is unique in the leverage it can exert on its developer community. If it wanted to, it wouldn’t be impossible for Tim Cook to deliver such a speech in 2015.
I look forward to the debate on the resolution with considerable interest.

17 Comments

  1. Michael Lauf

    I agree up to the point of using the word “All”. Who among us is qualified to determine
    which apps should be excluded. History has proven that improvements to accessibility
    come from individual advocacy by us taking the time to submit constructive feedback
    to developers and pointing them to Apple’s online resources and phone numbers. What about
    google, Microsoft and hardware manufacturers. Yes I like many others want to see
    improvements, but will never agree to any resolutions using the words “all” or “mandate”.

  2. Joseph

    This is the most ridiculous blog post or topic I’ve ever read. No, developers should not be forced to make apps accessible. It’s their choice if they do or do not. Get real, get a grip on yourself.

    • Reply to Ron

      Hi
      I would like to say that accessibility is important.
      If this is not true
      Would apple have built voice over?
      Would there be jaws nada windowwyes to name but a few?would there be games like papa sagry dice world or where’s my rubber ducky?
      The answer is no there would not
      I would also like to know is there a twitter scout for apple accessibility.
      Thanks

  3. Amy Mason

    All for the resolution. I wouldn’t care quite as much if accessibility were required for everyone if I had a way to protect my investments, but as things stand now, I can buy expensive applications or physical items that require support from apps, and have them rendered useless to me by the app “refreshing it’s UI for iOS 7”.

    Let’s pretend I buy a device, such as a Lark or a Fitbit, or a Nest. What do I do if the app is rendered inaccessible 2 weeks after the warranty expires? Should I just shrug and accept that the dev has a right to update their software? I can’t ask Apple for a refund, the app was free. The dev doesn’t care, they already got my money, and don’t want to fix their app.

    Wait, I know, I’ll just install the old version. Oh, wait… I can’t back install.

    I don’t see why any of us find this sort of experience acceptable.

    I’ll be voting do pass on the resolution.

    Thank you Jonathan for a well written defense of an important issue such as this one.

  4. Ron Johnson

    Hello,

    I agree with both Michael & Joseph.

    Mandating accessibility, while it sounds nice, noble, and the “right thing to do”, isn’t necessarily possible.

    Consider that, for one thing, app developers come in a wide range of expertise levels. Highly experienced developers are probably gonna be much more able to implement accessibility, whereas less experienced developers probably can’t or won’t, even if they want to.

    Next, as was pointed out, in the above blog post, let’s face it, some apps just don’t lend themselves to accessibility. This doesn’t mean the developer is a bigot, doesn’t care about blind folks, etc. It just simply means that, a purely visual app, most likely, isn’t going to translate well into the world of accessibility. That being said, apps, such as ones which allow you to watch your favorite TV show, movie, music video, etc, for instance, can be, and should be, made accessible, to the extent that the blind can see the names and categories of the content desired, all control buttons, etc. We, as blind folks, while we can do infinitely more than we could, just a couple decades ago, do need to be mindful of our limitations, and do need to accept those things which we cannot change, and change those things we can.

    Finally, I’ve talked to a number of developers, over the years, and the thing, which I’ve heard, over and over again is, Apple makes things difficult, many times, for developers. They’re constantly changing things, which, oftentimes, breaks compatibility and accessibility. Sometimes, they’re almost anal with changes they want developers to make to the UI of apps (my impression this has more to do with “eye candy”, than accessibility, or just plain functionality). Many of the restrictions Apple has, on how developers have to code, what they can & can’t access, etc, also is a huge source of consternation for developers. You can’t tell me that this doesn’t affect accessibility, to one degree or another? I’ve even been told, by a dev, or two, that sometimes, something as simple as a little tweak to an app, can get it rejected from the App Store, even if said tweak wouldn’t have compromised security, usability,, etc. Sometimes, unfortunately, Apple Inc. can be it’s own worst enemy.

    On balance, Apple has done a yeoman’s job, when it comes to accessibility, I’m extremely grateful for that, and I applaud them. I think, to be fair though, rather than forcing Apple to mandate accessibility, perhaps a far better solution is to offer positive feedback to debs who make accessible apps, write to accessibility@apple.com, and offer them feedback, comments and suggestions, and all of us should encourage Apple, in a kind, respectful way, to open better channels of communication between them, and the dev community, lower some of the development hurdles, make accessibility easier to implement, and, of course, we all, as a united community, need to encourage Apple to lead by example.

    In closing, mandates, of any kind, tend to lead to resentment and anger. Encouragement, praise, where warranted, criticism, where necessary, a positive attitude, and letting debs, and Apple know, just how empowering accessible apps are to our community, are the best ways to achieve greater accessibility, and a stronger, more positive rapport, between Apple and their developer community.

    Just my two cent’s worth.

  5. erik burggraaf

    I think this might be the way to go. One reason is that there are other accessibility needs besides blindness. A blind person may or may not want to use an arcade game, but a person with CP might. A blind person may or may not want to use an app for building slideshows from pictures on their phone, but a deaf person might. How many interviews have we listened to over the years from IOS app developers who said when they built their app, they had no idea it would be useful to people who are blind? Prismo, awareness, and so many other apps that have been a vital part of the IOS community over the years along with responsive app developers who built them never thinking they would be adopted by the blind as daily living aids. What might we be missing due to lack of accessibility?

    Apple has mandated, whether you like that word or not, that it’s products be fully accessible. They have backed up that mandate with 6 or 8 years now of research and development, encorporating user feedback, building products fully accessible out of the box. Apps are the life blood of the mobile experience, and mobile space leaders have significanly more control over their distrobution models than in the desktop world.

    I don’t like mandating people into doing things. I appreciate the number of IOS developers who have been responsive to the needs of blind users. But I do think that in the mobile space where accessibility tools are bilt in to the OS, more onus has to be placed on developers to make their apps accessible. We’ve talked about this on the eyes-free group. The Freedom Scientifics and GW Micros of the world are a thing of the past. We won’t be paying thousands of dollars to have third party companies bolt on access to the most important apps. That means accesibility has to be built in to modern apps from the ground up just as it is built in to the devices from the ground up, not just for the blind community but for all disabled users. That has to come from the app developers themselves and in order to have that happen, a minimum standard for accessible development “must” be “mandated”. Like it or not.

    Best,

    Erik

  6. Grant Hardy

    I applaud the National Federation of the Blind’s sincere efforts to act in the best interest of those with vision loss. I don’t believe, however, that any proposed mandate along these lines is very feasible or realistic, for the following three reasons:

    1) I think that specific accessibility issues (e.g. related to employment) should be addressed through the workplace, as well as any relevant employment laws and regulations. Also, enterprises often deploy their applications internally rather than via the App Store, so any mandate that the NFB recommends would not be effective at all in those situations. Incidentally, I’m curious as to which third-party App Store applications “prevent a blind person from independently performing the duties of his/her job”. I’m not saying there aren’t such applications; I am simply curious to see some examples because again, many enterprise apps are generally for internal use only.

    2) As Ron pointed out in his comment above, “mandates, of any kind, tend to lead to resentment and anger.” I fear that any proposed mandate may alienate the very companies and developers that we’d like to see on board with us. Apple has done an absolutely fantastic job by opening the door to an entire new category of devices for use by as many customers as possible including, of course, those with vision loss. Obviously, I would like to see accessibility improvements in all aspects of my life, but I recognize, for the moment, that there are reasonable limitations (e.g. it’ll be a while before there’s an accessible car for us to drive)!

    3) There are some apps where VoiceOver support just doesn’t seem practical. For example, there are video games that are incredibly visual in nature–how bizarre it would be if all these games were denied from the App Store. Also, there are some apps that rely on certain UI elements and methods of interaction that don’t seem practical for a VoiceOver user. For example, there are gesture-based apps which rely on swiping the screen in certain ways to perform an action (e.g. to delete an Email). These gestures are already taken by VoiceOver specific commands, so by nature those apps will be a bit trickier for VO users to use–and asking developers to write completely new interfaces for apps to work around this problem seems impractical. There are also apps which, really, can never be completely accessible by nature (e.g. photo-editing applications). Of course, I would love to be able to use every one of the hundreds of thousands of apps in the App Store; but I recognize that this is neither feasible nor reasonable at this time.

  7. Sea No Evil

    Thank you for such a thought provoking post.
    Whilst I heartily agree that there is no excuse for unlabelled buttons, images without captions etc., and am all for Apple cracking down on such shortcomings I am not so sure that mandating that all Apps be 100 % accessible is the best way to proceed.
    What concerns me about mandating accessibility is:
    1. Where does it stop and who would be the arbiter of such things? An App that is functional to me might be less than useless in the hands of someone with differing abilities. I would hate to see Apps useful to one section of the community rejected because it fails in the hands of another. Sometimes what looks like an aspirational goal is really just a slippery slope.
    2. The potentially stifling effect on creativity. The more rules,restrictions and bylaws that are in place the harder it will be for Dev’s to think outside the box. Blue Sky thinking is tough enough already, let’s not legislate it out of existence.
    3. Apple doesn’t have a monopoly. If restrictions are too onerous we risk Dev’s boycotting the App Store entirely and then we all lose.
    I would sooner see Apple endorse a rating system for all Apps on the App Store, for which accessibility is but one measure. What if Apple gave each App a score for (and this is off the top of my head) ystem/Data resources, ease of use and accessibility ?
    Such a system would, without mandating anything:
    1. Push Accessibility to the forefront of Dev’s minds.
    2. Turn Accessibility from a chore to a Marketing tool.
    3. Provide some level assurance to users before downloading Apps.
    So, as You can see, I believe that it is possible to use a market based approach to achieve our common goal, without the need to mandate.
    Sincerely,
    Sea No Evil.

    • Simon Jaeger

      I’ve thought for many years that the app store should have accessibility ratings similar to AppleVis. It wouldn’t be a huge amount of work to maintain, and would alert many a developer to the existence of us blind people, as well as anyone else who uses the other accessibility options. If the NFB really wants to get somewhere with this, I would strongly encourage them to encourage apple to add such a feature. It would take up far less resources, and would leave it up to the community, not apple, to moderate the accessibility of apps.

      * Apple developers often do not understand how truly popular apple products are among blind people, and may not know their potential increase in users until they see the accessibility ratings flooding in.
      * let’s face it. Many blind people just can’t be bothered writing an email detailing the issues with an app. Being able to do it in a few quick taps / button presses will also increase the number of people reporting problems. Of course, some of them will need to provide details, but we can hope the developers will have a way to contact these people back to follow up.
      * Apple basically won’t have to do anything to maintain this, unless they decide to start excluding certain apps from having an accessibility rating, which may be a smart move considering the high number of visual games and other apps which just will never be accessible.
      * If no blind people use the app, no changes will need to be made. All the people who made their little $0 solitaire apps with 3 downloads can just go on with their lives.

      Again, just my thoughts.

      • Ron Johnson

        Simon,

        I’m 100% in agreement with your suggestion that the app Store have an accessibility rating system. Frankly, I’ve bought my share of apps, over the years, both from the Mac & iOS app stores, all the while wondering just how accessible it would be, and if not, how easy would it be to get my money back, or, might it even be worth the trouble, seeing as most apps are relatively inexpensive.

        I’d take this a step further though. Not only should there be an accessibility rating system, but we should all post comments or reviews on the respective stores, so that others know that the app they’re looking to buy, is going to be worth their time, effort and money. Also, to get the ball rolling, it might not hurt for each of us, as well as AppleVis, to encourage Apple to enact such a rating system. We could all write to accessibility@apple.com, and AppleVis could do one of their “Campaign of the Month” events, towards that end.

        Money and ratings speak louder than any resolution adopted by any of the blindness advocacy organizations. TV shows survive or fail, based, largely, on ratings. Likewise, apps. If developers see their apps being highly rated for accessibility, as well as other things important to them, there’s a pretty good chance accessibility will continue to get attention, by the developer – they might even give it more attention.

        Market forces are powerful, and that can go a long ways towards driving increased accessibility.

        Just my thoughts.

        Ron

  8. Simon Jaeger

    I have really tried to consider this from both sides. I see the usefulness of creating an environment where everything is accessible, but I feel like this will alienate apple developers even more than any of the other requirements. Very few accessibility changes require a complete interface rewrite, but some of them do require some pretty significant code changes. We can argue that the reason these code changes are necessary is because the developers never bothered to make it accessible to begin with, but some people literally don’t realize how many VoiceOver users there are. Some people, as silly as this may seem, develop apps without even knowing what VoiceOver is. I do think it would be great if the app approval process looked for unlabelled buttons, and textual or clickable elements on the screen that are not read by VoiceOver, and recommended changes that could be made to fix them. Notice I did not say the apps should be declined. I think it sucks that some devices require apps that are made inaccessible through a major redesign, and at that point you’re relying on the companies themselves to either change the app or refund you. That would make me pretty angry if it happened to me. Ultimately though, I’m trying and failing to think of a way we could automate an approval process that insures the usability of only the apps which are actually important to blind people. We don’t expect anyone to make candy crush accessible, as doing so would change many things about the interface unnecessarily. Also, do we really need every single one of the hundreds of YouTube apps to be accessible to us, as long as we can perform all YouTube functions with either the official app, or some of the other ones that are accessible? There are thousands, possibly millions of apps on the app store. If apple were to introduce this inclucivity, how many of the newly accessible apps would even be used by blind people? At that point, it may become a waste of resources on both sides, apple and apple developers. I think everyone is looking at it based on their experiences with netflicks and other apps that should have been accessible years ago, and still aren’t. I agree that sucks, and there are many huge companies whose apps remain partially or completely unusable to us. Not fixing these apps is just pure stupidity and discrimination, and if I had my way, they would all be rejected until they did. But we can’t hold larger companies to a higher standard. We can’t even statistically figure out how many blind people are using the app, unless the app store begins to keep track of people’s accessibility settings. So ultimately, although I understand what the NFB is trying to do, I feel as though they really haven’t looked at the big picture outside the blind world. I would definitely vote no.

    Of course, I’ll be keeping an eye on this thread and am always interested to hear the point of view of other people who may have considered something I have not.

  9. Simon Jaeger

    I’m posting this comment because I was an idiot, and didn’t check the box for notifications of followups and replies. I apologize for the spam. Let the debate continue.

  10. Joe

    I don’t know why people against the resolution are up in arms. Everyone knows these things are purely symbolic. It’s a statement, and let’s be honest, few companies listen. I agree with Simon that there ought to be an accessibility rating. That alone would throw the whole environment into a different level, far more than Google or Microsoft are doing on their platforms. I don’t like the tone that mandates take either, but it doesn’t bother me much because the NFB will probably not really fight for it the way it fails to do with the majority of the resolutions it passes. The rest of the year you’ll hear about this lawsuit or that complaint, which are very important to be sure, but when it comes to modern technology, I always get the feeling the Federation is working hard to catch up in its understanding of what the technology does.

  11. Darrell Bowles

    When I read this post, it brought a though in 2-fold. IF apple did require accessibility in all there aps, (with sertain exceptions), what would this mean for google and Microsoft. 2. In the educational world, there are far to many platforms that colleges adopt that are not accessible. Either that, or colleges don’t care. Look at Penstate, Florida State, North Carolina, etc, the list goes on and on. Universal access to information is what needs to happen. If I can use the internet on my computer, then I should be able to on my tablet. If I can scan a document with the pc, then I should be able to with the mac, or an adroid device, etc. My hole point is, is that if for example apple does do this, will google and Microsoft follow? Do I agree with it, well, my answer is yes and no. Yes because apple would be setting a standard, that a lot of developers on other platforms just don’t get, and no because whare does it end? This is truly momentis, and we’ll just has to see what happens.

    • Simon Jaeger

      Honestly, the NFB tried this once before and it got shot down. I wonder if this will happen again, now that the iPhone has had a chance to come into the lives of many more blind people. mostly, I am just rather afraid we as blind people are getting carried away with the things we expect from large companies.

  12. Ian Hamilton

    “Very few accessibility changes require a complete interface rewrite”

    Not true. The majority of app downloads are games. The majority of games are not developed using UIKit, they are developed using engines such as Unity and Corona. The majority of game engines are not compatible with accessibility.

    So for probably the majority of apps on the store, what’s needed to get even a basic level of accessibility is abandoning an engine, and going on a complete ground-up rewrite.

    This is not feasible.

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