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.