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.