NFB’s iOS App Resolution: Some Perspective and Context

Edit: this post has been updated to reflect accurately the nature of the 2008 dialogue between NFB and Apple.

Being a member of a minority is exhausting at times. Ignorance, discrimination (both inadvertent and deliberate), and barriers preventing us from realising our full potential are problems we encounter regularly. These issues aren’t unique to blind people, or even to disabled people. I’m mindful as I write this of the recent 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act in the United States. It’s a significant piece of legislation. It required bravery on the part of the legislators who passed it. Its principles met with considerable resistance, some of it violent.
This post is a long one, because I believe the issues of self-advocacy, collective advocacy, what is worth fighting for and what is not, are all important to our sense of self-perception and our expectations of what constitutes our rightful place in society.
I’d like to illustrate both the challenges and potential of advocacy by recalling a few issues on which I’ve worked over the years, remind you of the advocacy of other minorities, then take a look at the National Federation of the Blind’s resolution on the accessibility of iOS apps in that context.
Maybe before you took time out to read this post, you spent some time today reading a book. Perhaps it came from Bookshare, or a special format library. We now have access to eBooks, and it’s worth noting that access to the Kindle app was achieved after considerable collective advocacy efforts. Nevertheless, special format libraries and repositories continue to play an important part in blind people exercising our right to read. It wasn’t always this easy for special format organisations to get their material to you.
In 1994, as the Manager of Government Relations for the organisation then known as the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind, I oversaw a campaign of advocacy which took advantage of New Zealand’s Copyright Act being rewritten. We believed that if an author published a book, it was being published for all the people to access. The status quo at that time was that if the special format library in New Zealand, and for that matter most other countries, wanted to make a book available in Braille or on talking book, they had to write a letter to the copyright holder asking for their permission. Sometimes, those letters would sit on someone’s desk for months and months. Eventually, the library would get a reply. Most of the time the reply said “yes”, sometimes the request was declined, meaning blind people were deprived of access to that book.
It seemed wrong to me that the process of making the book available in a special format, which is time-consuming in itself, was delayed by the need to seek permission. It was absolutely abhorrent to me that publishers felt they had the right to say “no”.
We began an advocacy campaign asking for a clause to be added to the Copyright Act giving blanket permission for recognised organisations for people with print disabilities to make books available in special formats, without having to seek the permission of the copyright holder first.
The response of the publishers was ferocious. They blasted me, and the campaign, for a culture of entitlement. Worse, they called me a thief. One day, I got a call from the representative of publishers who said, “so tell me, do you steal from everyone, or just from publishers”?
There’s no doubt we’d got the publishers angry. But we calmly made our case to the people who mattered, legislators. We pointed out that the publishers weren’t being required to pay for their material to be made available in special formats, that access to the printed word was just as important as access to the built environment. The legislators agreed, and the law was passed. It was ground-breaking, and in subsequent years I was approached by a number of organisations in multiple countries, including the United States, about how we concluded that advocacy effort successfully and how they might go about doing something similar.
Ultimately, that concept has now been enshrined in an international treaty. Something considered by some to be radical, over-reaching, exhibiting entitlement just 20 years ago is now considered sound public policy, even by the publishers.
Not long after that campaign was concluded successfully, I was being asked to front up on a range of current affairs shows over my campaign to repeal the law which arguably prohibited any blind person from serving on any jury. I debated the issue on radio with our Minister of Justice, who was staunchly opposed to any change in the law. In the most exciting of these appearances, I was debating one of New Zealand’s top criminal lawyers, who was both patronising and adamant on the subject. Sight, he said, was essential to serve on any jury. I put my case politely but forcefully.
Afterwards, the talk shows were full of it. There were a good number of people who talked about political correctness gone mad, asking why the Foundation was paying big money for this clown to alienate people, saying they’d never donate to the Foundation again. No matter how psychologically prepared you are for the onslaught, it’s not easy being in the centre of that kind of firestorm.
However, legislators were watching. Enough had been persuaded by the logic of my argument that the law was changed. Now it’s totally a non-issue.
I could fill screens and screens with examples like this – examples of taking advocacy stances that were right, but unpopular.
All the vitriol I went through is totally insignificant compared with what racial minorities, such as blacks in the US, went through to secure their right to equality. There was no shortage of people who said, “if we don’t want to serve blacks, that’s our right. If we don’t want blacks at our school, that’s our right”. If brave, great civil rights leaders had listened to those who were worried about how many white people civil rights campaigns were offending, what a much less equal world we’d have. Sometimes, you have to take a stand knowing it will offend. That’s not to say you deliberately seek to offend. One is better respected, and furthers one’s cause, when one is resolute but courteous.
In the context of the resolution passed by NFB over the weekend asking that Apple require all iOS apps to be accessible, it really saddens me to see the number of young people on social networks, enjoying entitlements very hard fought for, slamming what they perceive to be the culture of entitlement pervasive in the resolution. Ironic, and sad.
People seem to forget that in 2008, we only had access to iTunes, at least in Windows, thanks to the diligence of one man, Brian Hartgen. I seem to recall a lot of people complaining extremely vociferously about the cost he was charging to get some recompense for the hours and hours it took to make that dog’s breakfast of an app useable.
Then, as Apple embarked on iTunes U, and educational institutions began adopting it, iTunes became subject to federal law. The NFB of Massachusetts raised serious concerns with Apple, and also put pressure on universities not to use iTunes U until iTunes was fully accessible. Apple came to the party. Now, blind people with a range of screen readers benefit daily from that advocacy, which some people criticised at the time.
Can we express gratitude and request change at the same time? Yes of course we can. NFB gave Apple an award in 2010 for the remarkable, life-changing introduction of VoiceOver to iOS. But we are customers. The money we pay for an iPhone or iPad is no less of value than the money a sighted person pays. We’re perfectly entitled to strive for access to as many apps as we can get.
Since the resolution was published ahead of the debate, a move for which I thank NFB as the debate was interesting, people have asked why Apple is being singled out. I think the reasons for that are twofold.
First, more blind smartphone users are using iOS than any other platform, by virtue of how well Apple has done. Apple can and should be proud of that.
Second and most significantly, no other app repository imposes as many criteria on app developers. Apps are rejected from the App Store for a bunch of reasons. Apple can decide the app adds no particular value. They can reject it for security reasons. They can decide the app is in bad taste, or not family-friendly enough. Those of us who’ve been around a while may remember all the hassles Google had getting the Google Voice app into the App Store.
So then the question is, why shouldn’t accessibility be of greater concern?
Some have said that the resolution’s scope is totally unrealistic. They say that calling for all apps to be accessible is just a nonsense. It can’t be done, and it would be hard to police even if it could.
Let me take the first part first. It can’t be done? Yes, I agree with that. It can’t. There are some apps so visual in nature and purpose that you’re never going to make them accessible. If that’s the case, why do I support the resolution? I support it, because it’s important to understand how advocacy works. You go into a negotiation with your very best case scenario on display. In an ideal world, we’d like all apps to be accessible. I have no inside information, but I have concluded many successful advocacy campaigns, and I have no doubt that NFB will already be clear about where they’d be prepared to give ground. If Apple comes to the table, their starting position is likely to be that whether a third-party app is accessible or not is a matter for the developer in question, not Apple. Apple may well also have a compromise position of some kind in mind. It’s an absolutely standard negotiating position.
Second, how practical is the resolution, given that there are approximately 1.5 million apps in the Store? There are plenty of automated testing tools in use in IT companies. They can certainly test for textual labels on buttons, although I agree it would have to be a clever testing tool to try and ascertain whether the text was helpful. Tricky, but Apple has some of the best software engineers in the world.
I can remember some years ago when web accessibility campaigns were in their infancy. Many people were complaining then about how unnecessary and politically correct web accessibility was because they just knew blind people would never go to their website anyway. Then, DreamWeaver, a popular web authoring tool, added warnings when developers tried to save a page that contained links or graphics without ALT text. A warning would pop up telling the developer that it looked like they were about to create an inaccessible page, and did they really want to do that. Adding a similar warning to Apple’s developer tools could make a huge difference.
It’s true that automated testing tools and warnings when developers create an app are not a panacea. Perhaps some additional blind people might be employed to further Apple’s efforts here. And if a few more of the capable, tech-savvy blind people I know who are struggling to find work could get those jobs, I’m all for that.
Some people have said how sad it is that NFB is showing such ingratitude, that they’re alienating developers, the very people we need to have on-side. As you may know, I set up a company earlier this year, Appcessible, where a bunch of blind people help app developers with accessibility. It’s rewarding work, and I find it satisfying because if I see a problem, I always try to find a constructive way of being part of the solution. But no matter how hard we at Appcessible try, how hard you try as an individual who contacts a developer, it’s a humungous task. You’ll have successes, and you’ll have set-backs, but there’s a wider principle to be defended here.
The status quo is that app developers can say, “if we don’t wish to accommodate blind people, that’s our right”. Sound familiar? It should do. It’s a similar argument to that used against blacks in 1964.
Deaf people have been criticised for their efforts to have every single movie captioned on Netflix. Wheelchair users were criticised for getting legislation passed requiring all public buildings to be physically accessible. Building owners objected, saying no disabled people come here anyway so why should I bother? The irony is, disabled people didn’t go there because they couldn’t.
Many app developers either don’t know blind people are using VoiceOver, think we only use special apps, or think that we don’t want to use their particular app. We’re a low-incidence population, so misconceptions are common. And that’s yet another reason why this resolution has been a great move. I’ve read a number of tech publications this morning, where a story about the resolution is running. I figured it would get out there eventually, which is why those who thought the resolution made no difference were naive and didn’t understand the media clout of an organisation like NFB.
Of course there are those reacting badly. As I’ve sought to illustrate, nothing worth winning in this world was ever won without objection, so I’m relaxed about that. But you know what’s good? People are talking about app accessibility in the mainstream. Some of the commenters are educating the ignorant about how powerful VoiceOver is, what blind people are doing with iPhones and how relatively easy it is to make an app accessible. Sure, there’ll be people who will never be persuaded, but today, more people are a little more informed about accessibility than yesterday.
Some have objected strongly to a quote in the Reuters piece on NFB’s resolution in which an affiliate board member mentioned the potential of a law suit on this issue. I listened to the debate carefully on Saturday, and the question of a law suit didn’t come up. I also know from experience that once a story gets into the wild, news agencies will contact people they have on file, who may not necessarily be an authorised spokesperson for the organisation. That’s just the nature of the media. Once the story gets out there, you can’t control who they talk to.
I realise I’ve written a bit of a novel here, but I really want to try the best I can to illustrate to younger people in particular why many of the accommodations they enjoy today such as the course they’re studying, the job they’re doing, the vocational choices they have, were achieved over the opposition of some often powerful forces. We need to be far less worried about what others think, and more concerned with a considered position on what we believe the place of blind people in society to be. Do we have sufficient self-worth that we’re willing to do what it takes to achieve equality, even when it necessitates ruffling a few feathers, or are we content to languish in our mediocrity and accept being rebuffed.
In this case, I think NFB made the right call. Maybe Apple will come to the table, maybe it won’t. But already, more people are aware of accessibility than they were before this resolution. If Apple does engage, the outcome won’t be that every single app will be accessible, but with good will on both sides, progress will be made. Then, in 20 years’ time, people will be trying to remember why it was ever contentious.

12 Comments on “NFB’s iOS App Resolution: Some Perspective and Context

  1. You site that maybe a good reason for this resolution is the high number of iOS device users which, by it’s very nature, means we’ll have greater needs. I am one of the people that feels that Apple was the wrong target here. Please offer some thought as to why the company that has done the most for us is having more demanded of it or at least the appearance of same. Why for instance should Apple get a resolution demanding full access when it’s perfectly ok for Microsoft to stay pretty much out of accessibility and let the Access Tech industry do the bulk of the accessibility heavy lifting?

    In my limited view Other companies need that strong push of advocacy a bit more than Apple. Let’s say NFB put a similar resolution on Microsoft and got half of what they wanted as part of regular back and forth. This would cause probably a good number of blind people to use things like Windows Phone because it would work well with the windows computers the majority of us already use. Apple has, although not perfect, a fine record of addressing accessibility concerns and if other companies rose to their standard, it is my guess that money lost would serve as a compelling motivator to increase innovation where accessibility is concerned.

  2. Very well said, Jonathan.

    The pejorative use of the word ‘entitlement’ is normally used in respect of those who expect to be privileged. The entitlement not to be discriminated against is something quite different. What other legal rights does one wish to waive on the grounds of superfluous entitlement?

    Some opponents of the resolution are fearful that imposing a duty on Apple will put a barrier between us and the app developers. This need not happen. Apple will more than likely be better able at putting developers in touch with our community in order to ensure compliance with accessibility standards. Well done, NFB!

  3. Hello,
    I believe the NFB took their resolution a little bit too far.
    Apps that are considered utilitarian and can serve as a means of functioning within daily life I can see as being mandated for accessibility. However, there are certain games that utilize graphics and objects moving around the screen constantly. Those particular games would not present a good contextual means to create accessibility. Nor would a blind person be able to appreciate what was going on within the game, primarily because that game may deal with a specific cartoon character or emoji not present in the blind person’s lexicon.

    • How was it fair to point a finger at Apple while Google is not asked to comply with the Same standards?
      If I’m not mistaken, various blind organizations attempted to do the same with Microsoft when windows came out. That’s how we wound up with the pece crap we now call narrator. Apple was making inroads inaccessibility before Microsoft even thought about attempting it. Have we forgotten about the Apple 2E? though it was not what we have now, at least it was more than Microsoft offered at the time. there are current accessibility standards laid out now. Why not put energy into enforcing what we currently have versus forcing one single company to do something everyone should be doing? We are flying people also deserve choice. What this resolution will do is make it look as if Apple is the only company associated with anyone who is blind. Those who use android will be left behind. why did the NFB stop there? there are appliances now being manufactured with digital panels that are inaccessible to blind people. Why isn’t the NFB up in arms about that? We use our appliances as much or more than we use our phones. I personally do not want to be put in a box just because I have a visual problem. I deserve just as much choice as anyone else. Apple took the lead inaccessibility. Their hands should not be slapped for not having to have government Or organizational intervention to do so. shame on the NFB for not being all-inclusive to any organization or manufacturer for not making anything they have accessible to all of us.

  4. I do see both sides of this issue, but I feel I should start by asking the question, how did the X-Box resolution of the same nature turn out? Has there been any progress? Any compromises? I think what is at issue here is that it is unclear what the NFB is actually asking for with the Apple resolution. Will this only apply to apps used in the educational system? Will app developers not be able to get the next version of Angry Birds in the app store because a menu button wasn’t labeled? Or will it turn out to be just another way to segregate blind friendly apps away from the rest of the store by creating a blind friendly app section? Would we be able to comply in the same way if the tables were turned, in that if the requirement was that all iOS apps had to be visually beautiful by Apple’s standard to be approved? I do agree there should be some sort of accessibility test during the approval process, but a failing grade on accessibility should in no way prevent an app from being accepted into the store. However, let’s look at the Windows 8 app store for a moment. Many people may not know this about the Windows 8 app store, but it does have an accessibility flag that is supposed to indicate whether a particular app is accessible to a screen reader or not. The problem is, the standards they use do not work. No app that I have tried that indicated the accessibility flag worked with any screen reader I tried, Narrator, NVDA, nor Jaws. I believe that when the compramises happen regarding the Apple issue, that it will boil down to at least indicating whether an app is accessible or not through an accessibility flag similar to Windows 8’s store. What will the standard be that determines accessibility. Who or what will do the testing? Is the real goal of NFB’s resolution to get blind accessibility testing companies contracted with Apple to do the testing for approval? If so, what type of certification will be required of the blind accessibility companies doing the testing? Because, let’s be honest, anyone can say they know how to test for accessibility, but if the certifiers aren’t certified by anything, then it’s no better than a handshake deal.

  5. I should clarify what I am talking about a bit more. To my knowledge, there is no certification standards board that constitutes what is accessible and what is not. Meaning there have been no standards outlined by any universally accepted board of trustees for mobile apps. Therefore there is no standards certification process to follow for anyone wishing to test for accessibility. Just taking someone at their word that they know what they need to do to make an app accessible is never going to fly on a corporate level. The corporations will want to know what standards lead to the decision of approved or not approved. They will want to know what type of certification the person has that makes them a trusted authority on accessibility standards. I feel that NFB’s resolution is not a bad idea, I just think it is too early to ask a corporation to follow a set of standards of which no one is a certified authority. I think a better move at this time would be to establish a standards board that would be a joint effort of multiple blindness organizations, not just the NFB. This board must be recognized by more organizations than just the NFB in order to lessen the chance of bias toward any particular organization’s belief system. The members of this board would be elected, and not just appointed by the board itself. Again, corporations won’t just take someone at their word that they know accessibility, they will want some form of certification of the person or company doing the testing.

  6. I am of several minds about this issue. I was one of those people in the 1970s who helped pass legislation requiring public places to be accessible to all. The arguments against this were wide ranging and now, nobody can remember why they opposed it.
    NFB has always been fairly strident which may be a style people don’t like. Why bite the hand that feeds you so well? Perhaps, it is a love bite, and could increase cooperation between Apple and an organization such as Applevis.
    The fact that main stream media is talking about blind access is hugely important. Perhaps this, above all, is what is important. Who regulates what and how, are things which can be worked out. Other operating systems will be paying attention and can learn from what comes to pass in the negotiating process. However, I was one who winced at the resolution in the same way I am uncomfortable when people say that mainstream devices are the only way and specialized blindness products are bad. We all have to remember that compromise is our best friend. Compromise doesn’t mean selling out, just getting what you want by agreement rather than battle.

  7. Think of it this way. A movie theater owner wants to make their movie theater THX certified. The movie theater isn’t going to want to hire Cleatus T. just because he’s hooked up his own stereo at home for the past 20 years, they are going to seek a person that has gone through the THX certification training, because it is more likely that they would know the standards and guidelines that THX requires. While Apple Vis is a good place to find out what apps are accessible, there is no leagaly binding guarantee that the app was tested by someone who knows what the standards are. There is no vetting process and no legal certifications that can confirm compliance with accessibility standards for mobile apps. The only thing we can tell companies is well I’m blind and have been playing with iOS since the 3Gs came out. And that’s cool, but not the trustworthy leagal compliance testing certification that corporations are in search of.

  8. This was an excellent post Jonathan, thank you. I certainly understand a position where two parties negotiate together until a suitable compromise is reached. I genuinely support the NFB’s sincere and courageous advocacy, and I’m looking forward to the accessibility of iOS devices hopefully taking another positive step forward.

    Having reflected on my previous comment, my primary concern centered on apps that are visual by their very nature, such as photo editing software and graphical video games, and how much it would alienate customers and developers to be told that someone was trying to have these apps pulled or restructured. In my opinion, that would be very extreme and completely unreasonable. As soon as technology permits it, developers should embrace the accessibility of such apps but in the meantime, this particular limitation is one I do accept, just as I accept that currently there are no accessible cars available on the market. As you and others have said, for now, it can’t be done.

    I do agree, however, that whenever feasible, apps should be accessible (e.g. there is no reason in this day and age for an E-reading application to be inaccessible). I also would like to reiterate the fact that many apps used in enterprises are not available in the App Store at all, in which case accessibility concerns would still need to be routed through other channels.

    I have great respect and admiration for you and everyone else that worked incredibly hard to bring many of the accommodations and entitlements that are taken for granted today, and I wholeheartedly support continued advocacy to make our lives, and our society, better.

  9. Everyone seems to forget, that it was NFB, all those years ago that told microsoft that they need not concern themselves withy coding a useable screen access solution for blind users as the big three were sufficient. now look at them, they’re playing catch up, and doing an admirable job at it, yet, apple has at least 10 years on them in terms of integrating accessibility solutions into the OS, and providing speech for those that require it at bare bones setup time. We have the Out Of the Box Experience, yet, we can’t yet do an install with speech like we can with OSX. It’s all well and good congratulating NFB for their forethought now, but, remember, it was due to their advice, MS only gave3 us a bare bones narrator in the first place.

  10. The previous commenter is correct. When Microsoft announced it’s desire to include a screen reader, it was met with opposition from the NFB along with others. So, Microsoft complied with the concerns and released a severely crippled version of Narrator. So, to this day, Microsoft cripples Narrator, not because they don’t know how to make a usable screen reader but because of the concerns expressed by the NFB and others in 1998, that if Microsoft were to release a competitive screen reader for Windows, other screen readers would not be able to compete. And yeah, when NFB supported screen readers have generally cost up to and over $1000, they certainly wouldn’t have been able to compete. But to break it down in real terms, access technology companies directly contribute thousands of dollars to blind organizations like the NFB and ACB to gain favor within those organizations. Most of the world would call that buying off the politicians, but, I’m certain the blind organizations call it something different to make it not seem so bad. They attempted to condemn Voice Over in the same ways, but the organizations heard such a backlash about it they had to back down and let Apple’s progress occur. The difference was, Apple’s Mac OS market share was not a monopoly, so they could not use that threat as leverage as they could with Microsoft in 1998.

  11. ….. and that’s why what NFB is doing needs to be seriously analized.

    I don’t trust Microsoft enough to confirm that they would produce a workable screen reader, but chances are that if they did so the full eco system of blinds in the world would have benefited a lot in terms of jobs and daily living experiences. Think about small busenesses trying to employ blind people … at least here a cost of a comercial screen reader would make a huge difference towards the “no” … bilieve me those busenesses wouldn’t have cash to buy it…

    I do understand why Screen Readers are so expensive and JAWS is definitly by far the very best screen reader ever produced, but it could be produced by the same price, generating the very same cash or more if it was a part of Microsoft and not a single product.

    You guys remember that the world is not only USA. By unfollowing the statusco and producing their own good quality screen reader at no cost, Apple has extended oportunity and inclusion to a lot of people that would not have cash enough to buy yet another reader for thousands of $.

    By dividing the costs of voiceover development by every single device produced, Apple has virtually no costs making voiceover available for free to everyone and this is a revolution!

    But even Apple’s products are way expensive, compared to Android * in South America ios devices can cost up than five times more what Android devices do cost, and many people with no money even to buy a computer can aford a good android device, thus gaining access to the internet and to other applications that might make a difference for their lives. Currently Android is in about 80% of the devices worldwide … so if someone has to be pushed to make their system more acessible … Google should be the choice. And do notice that I am talking about the system not about apps here.
    I love Apple products and will try keep using them but the present and future is Android. Again, the world is not only USA. While you guys are doing great, there is something else to be considered.

    p.s. If one decides not to accept black people inside their shop, the government should take actions and make sure that this discrimination will not happen. It is a problem bbetween black people, the shop and the government, who represent the society. If developpers decide that blind people won’t be supported, they and not Apple must be issued.
    While Apple gives itself the right of rejecting apps, if an app discriminates people by means of not being acessible, it’s not a mathers of Apple liking it or not but it is ratter a question of developpers discriminating people. It is beyond Apple and Apple should not be envolved in regulating it.