Since its release, I’ve been using Fleksy, an app for iOS.
Long, long ago, when I used a Nokia device with a number pad, over time I became very fast with text input, thanks to T9 predictive texting. The more I used my iPhone, the faster I became entering text with the virtual keyboard, but I never approached the speeds I did with the Nokia devices.
Fleksy made a massive difference. The genius of Fleksy is that you type without giving it much thought. You type roughly where you think you need to, and Fleksy’s prediction algorithm does a good job of working out what it is you intend. Sometimes it may present a series of words, but it’s easy to flick through those, then move onto the next word you wish to type.
Initially, Fleksy was targeted exclusively at the blind market, and had to be purchased from the iOS App Store. Over time, the business model has changed. The app is now free, an Android version is available, and the company is targeting a much wider, mainstream market.
I applaud this.
As I’ve blogged previously here, there are many examples of technologies originally designed for the blind that have moved onto the mainstream, including the LP record and the desktop scanner. Given the socio-economic status of our community, a free app allows the technology to get into the hands of more people. I was pleased to have been able to buy the app initially, help its development along in some small way through the purchase, and ultimately see it freely available.
Fleksy’s innovation continues. An SDK means the keyboard is being integrated in third-party apps now. This is a work-around to Apple’s sandbox approach which prevents an installed app from providing functions system-wide, unless they are doing something exposed by an API provided by Apple.
Last week, Fleksy dropped a bombshell. They announced they would have two versions in the store. One version would be targeted specifically at VoiceOver users, and the other would be for the mainstream market. Blind people using the built-in VoiceOver screen reader for iOS were encouraged to delete the current Fleksy app they had been using since its inception, and download this new one, based on an older version of the code.
My initial reaction was that what counts is that we have the best access we can to the tools we need. We are a market with unique requirements, and if it takes a specific app to meet those requirements, so be it.
My view was not by any means shared universally. A number of people with credentials in the accessibility sector took to Twitter to voice their disapproval, claiming that with this decision, Fleksy was segregating us.
When the topic was raised initially, I felt considerable sympathy for Fleksy, believing them to be victims of a massive over-reaction.
Yesterday, Fleksy released an update to the original Fleksy app, which is now the app designed for mainstream users. It was then that the consequences of this decision really became apparent. The app we once used is inaccessible.
In response to the push-back, Fleksy has said that the blindness-specific app is only a temporary work-around, and they pointed out that blind people require some tweaking of the prediction algorithm because we use it a bit differently from the way it is used by a sighted person.
Having had time to consider the arguments from others, I now believe my initial decision to shrug my shoulders and not worry about this decision was the wrong one.
At present, I’m giving a lot of thought to how we encourage iOS app developers to ensure their apps are accessible. Having thought it through more carefully, I’m now deeply troubled by the signal this approach sends to the developer community. Let’s remember, Fleksy are brilliant at marketing their product. I read a lot of tech publications, and they are everywhere.
A lot of people know Fleksy’s out there. It’s sending totally the wrong signal to app developers when they read that Fleksy has a special VoiceOver-friendly version of their app. It’s counterproductive because it reinforces the notion that accessibility is hard, that considerable lengths have to be gone to, that hoops have to be jumped through, in order to make an app VoiceOver friendly. I can’t condone this approach and I don’t believe any of us in the blind community should condone it either. The people are great, the app is great, but this is the wrong decision and it needs to be reversed as a matter of the highest priority.
Consequently, I’ve uninstalled Fleksy, and it will remain off my devices unless or until they return to one app, universally accessible to all. If they intend getting around to it sometime, then may I respectfully suggest they drop whatever else it is they are doing and do it now.
If they need a setting in the app to invoke specific behaviours, fine. If they need to detect the presence of VoiceOver and give us a different experience, OK. Just don’t tell the world at large that blind people need an app separate from everyone else. It does our accessibility cause no good at all, and indeed, it potentially does it active harm.
I congratulate Fleksy on all they’ve achieved, but this is a colossal mistake, and there are times when as consumers, we should respond when a boundary has been overstepped. This is one such time.