Apple and accessibility: Pushing back against unacceptable realities

Apple and accessibility: Pushing back against unacceptable realities

Accessibility is something that seldom gets the attention it deserves. Most of us go about our day without ever wondering how accessible an iPhone or iPad or Mac is to the blind or the deaf, to those with autism or motor disfunction, or how accessible the apps that run on them are. Yet there are people who do care deeply about accessibility. Those who need iPhones and iPads and Macs to be ever-more accessible, of course, and those working to make iPhone and iPads and Macs ever-more accessible. Among technology companies, Apple does a tremendous job not only implementing accessibility, but promoting it and prioritizing it as well. And it starts at the very top.

That's Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, receiving the International Quality of Life Award (IQLA) from Auburn University in December of 2013. At the 1:30 mark, he addresses the value of accessibility (emphasis mine):

People with disabilities often find themselves in a struggle to have their human dignity acknowledged. They frequently are left in the shadows of technological advancements that are a source of empowerment and attainment for others. But Apple's engineers push back against this unacceptable reality, they go to extraordinary lengths to make our products accessible to people with various disabilities from blindness and deafness to various muscular disorders.

Cook goes on to say:

I receive hundreds of e-mails from customers every day, and I read them all. Last week I received one from a single mom with a three year old autistic son who was completely non-verbal, and after receiving an iPad, for the first time in his life, he had found his voice. I receive scores of these incredible stories from around the world and I never tire of reading them.

We design our products to surprise and delight everyone who uses them, and we never, ever analyze the return on investment. We do it because it is just and right, and that is what respect for human dignity requires, and its a part of Apple I'm especially proud of.

It's a part of Apple, as a customer, I've always appreciated as well. Partly because it serves the interests of humanity, partly because it serves my interests as a customer. If Apple is thinking that deeply about accessibility, it betrays deep thoughts into every aspect of usability. At least to me, it betrays not only painting the back of the fence, but making the fence safe and valuable for everyone.

If that IQLA statement wasn't plain enough, here's Tim Cook using even more direct language:

When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don't consider the bloody ROI.

That attitude is by no means unique to Tim Cook. When FaceTime was first announced, the WWDC video at the 1:20 mark showcased a sign-language conversation, with iPhone owners finally able to communicate in the best way possible for them.

When Siri was introduced, the WWDC video at the 1:00 mark showcased how someone blind could have messages read to them and could then dictate messages back using their voice alone.

Apple has highlighted iPhone apps that can let those without sight walk independently through forests, and Guided Access technology that can help those with autism stay focused on a single task.

Apple has shown all of this not once or twice, not only when prompted, and not off at some lesser venue, but on the stage at its biggest event of the year, and in commercials broadcast around the world.

Internally, in addition to teams tasked with ensuring the security and performance of Apple's software, there's a team tasked solely with ensuring its accessibility. Resources are also made available to stress the importance of accessibility to developers, and to help get more apps more accessible faster.

There's an accessibility support page for owners at www.apple.com/support/accessibility/ that goes over all the current features. There's also one for developers at developer.apple.com/accessibility/. There's a page highlighted the iPad's roll in special education, including a video of its use in classrooms, saying:

For special education teachers around the world, iPad opens up a world of possibilities. Meet teachers at three schools — Special School Poděbrady in the Czech Republic, the Awase Special Needs School in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, and New York's District 75, the world's largest special education district — and discover how they use iPad and apps to motivate learning, improve social interactions, and encourage independence in the classroom and beyond.

And there are more accessibility features are on the way with iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite as well.

I point all of this out not to pat Apple on the back or to hold them up as an example. I point this all out, I hope, for the same reason Apple includes accessibility in so many of their videos — to bring even more attention to what is such an important issue.

Apple can, of course do more. So can Apple's competitors by making accessibility a competitive challenge. So can developers by making accessibility as important and integral to the app-creation process as functionality and design. So can customers, by making it known how important accessibility is to us and our family and our friends and our colleagues. And by making it known not only with our words but with our wallets.

When it comes to accessibility, we can all do more. Including me.

We've already created an accessibility hub and forum here at iMore: www.imore.com/accessibility and forums.imore.com/accessibility-special-needs/.

We're also going to ramp up our accessibility coverage, including more help and how-to articles, so everyone can get the most out of the remarkable technology Apple builds into iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and regular columns from people who depend on accessibility to use their devices and live their lives every day.

We can all do more.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Apple and accessibility: Pushing back against unacceptable realities

22 Comments

But the real question is, is forcing accessibility on developers necessary as one advocacy group seems to want to do. They seem to want to blanket force this onto all apps that are submitted to the App Store. Is that right? Do we force accessibility ramps in all vehicles? Does that make sense when there are so many variations of applications .. I don't question that developers should be encouraged.. but at the same time, this isn't as easy of putting words at the bottom of a video for the hearing impaired.. who says it's enough? who polices it? Who sets this all-encompasing standards of who's in and not? Does this impact all games, productive apps only, fitness?

I akin Apps to cars.. There are so many shapes, sizes, and use cases that forcing accessibility ramps on all vehicles (or all apps) does not make sense.. and ends up causing a 'just get it good enough' mentality from devs to get it past app submission ..

I would argue to encourage an accessibility category and certification so those that want to tailer to accessibility can do so to a set standard and then a market for those types of apps can grow and be of a better quality.. rather than just force feed it.

That's a multi-layered questions. Should federal governments legislate accessible access to apps? Should state or local?

Should platform owners like Apple or Google or Microsoft?

Should language support be considered a type of accessibility? Which languages?

Most of us would answer "YES!" to specifically what applies to us, but coming to a consensus on what needs to apply to everyone is going to be extremely difficult, I think.

Maybe you don't get rejected if your app isn't accessible, but you don't get featured? Is there a middle ground?

given the additional reach an accessible app has, in terms of market share and money, one would think the answer to be obvious.

But sometimes devs aren't good about thinking outside themselves. months agonizing over the font, zero time thinking about people who need a little help to use their app.

Who else can make things accessible? Apple after the fact? the government after the fact?

There's one and only one group that can make apps accessible: the devs. Can every app be made perfectly accessible to everyone? No, games come to mind here. But the idea that things can't be better is silly. It's like cars. No, every car physically cannot have a ramp. But they can all, and do, have minor touches that make things easier. Like better door handles that don't require the amount of coordination that older models used to. Like seats that can automatically move back when the door is open.

This isn't about perfection, it's about progress. If an app has a lot of text, what's the justification in not making that text easier to "read" by people who can't see? if there's a video embedded in the app, why NOT have it captioned?

Here's the thing: people who have vision issues, or hearing issues or other kinds of physical issues that need a bit more attention from devs? They have money. And they have friends. And they notice when someone has gone the extra mile to make things easier for them, along with noticing when someone has not.

Accessibility isn't just "good" in the moral sense, it's "good" in the fiscal sense.

As I've already mentioned, I've added my own accessibility API to my apps, but in doing that I tend to not make the entire app "accessible". Rather I make those parts of it that are essential to play and use accessible. Mine are educational apps, so I choose to leave "teacher" areas un-augmented for accessibility in an attempt to protect the user experience for the students so that they are less likely to get into a part of the app that might cause them problems.

It's important to have lots of options and settings to allow the experience to be tailored to the individual. This makes development harder, and testing more complicated, but if you're focusing on the people using the app, and not your bottom line (which I'm fortunate to be able to do), then Tim Cook's line about ROI is very apt.

Well said and as a visually impaired vet I thank you. You are so right we do have money, some more than others and those who do have money test apps and make recommendations some on a small level and others on a very large level. I stay in contact with the blind rehabilitation instructors I have met over the years and we do talk about apps and wether they will work or not, if an app has limited accessibility it is a fail and will not be recommended.

The below is written from the point of view of a totally blind iOS user; other people with other disabilities & even other blind people will feel differently. You say:

"is forcing accessibility on developers necessary as one advocacy group seems to want to do. They seem to want to blanket force this onto all apps that are submitted to the App Store."
Not sure if you're referring to blind users here; some of us can sometimes be quite passionate about accessibility, but if you're not able to use something when the rest of your friends are perhaps this is understandable to a certain extent? I for one would never advocate obligatory accessibility for every app because there are some apps (games) where a complete redesign would be required & I don't want the small indie game dev to spend twice as long developing their next title but then not make enough sales to recoup the costs associated with the increased development time.

"but at the same time, this isn't as easy of putting words at the bottom of a video for the hearing impaired"
It depends on the app. Early versions of Facebook were inaccessible & they showed absolutely no interest in fixing it. If an app is using standard Apple UI controls a: if it's not already usable (arguably different from accessible?) it indicates poor programming practice and b: it's terribly easy to make it accessible. I'd advocate a system where more pressure (not regulation) was placed on certain types of apps such as Facebook with some types of apps excluded. In terms of games, based on my understanding of how Candy Crush is played for example I fail to see why making it accessible would be such a huge undertaking. In contrast, I completely understand why I can't play Angry Birds. Perhaps there should be different guidelines depending on the genre of the game?
There are regulations about ramps on vehicles because they're fairly easy to add. There are no regulations that say that aeroplanes control hardware & software should be usable by a totally blind pilot, partly because there would be a large number of nontrivial obstacles that would need to be overcome and partly because to put it simply, that would just be stupid.

"I would argue to encourage an accessibility category and certification so those that want to tailer to accessibility can do so to a set standard and then a market for those types of apps can grow and be of a better quality.. rather than just force feed it."
I can understand why this may seem like a good idea to someone who isn't dependant on accessibility but in the nicest way possible I feel it would be terrible.
One of the really nice things about iDevices is that I no longer have to use overpriced pieces of hardware / software to be independent. For example, I used to own one of these http://www.humanware.com/en-united_kingdom/products/blindness/talking_gp... - it's a piece of hardware that does GPS targeted towards the blind. When I purchased it was over £400. Whilst there isn't really one GPS app on iOS that does absolutely everything that I want, I currently use a few different ones that from memory have cost me a total of around £50.
If Apple made accessibility into that strange thing that only a small number of developers had to think about (partly by giving accessible apps their own category in the app store & partly by making apps inaccessible by default), I'd wager that the majority of mainstream apps I currently use wouldn't be accessible, paving the way for assistive companies to more or less charge whatever they want for their apps because they know that there are no mainstream competitors.

Some more general comments:

I should probably start out by saying that I am (in my opinion) by no means an Apple fan boy. I build all of my desktops so I have absolutely no desire to buy a Mini, iMac or MacPro & given the amount of proprietary components in Apples newer laptops along with terrible upgradability I also have no desire for an Apple portable. Despite this, I don't feel I'm exaggerating when I say that iDevices have changed my life, ever since I received my first iPod touch in January 2010. Some of the things that I can now do are:

Identify my post & once opened perform OCR on it to have it read to me.
Determine the colour of the clothes that I'm wearing.
Perform object identification on various things that aren't immediately obvious - E.G. telling two bottles of wine apart or two jars of sauce.
Find out where I am when I'm on a train where the stops aren't being announced.
Find out when the next bus will be stopping at the bus stop that I'm standing at.
Lastly, probably the most amazing thing for me was when I first felt the layout of a website on my iPad, having not experienced this since I lost my site about 6 years before.

Good article; keep it up.

I don't think anyone is forcing you to do anything, if you choose to be a developer and you choose to not abide by the rules set forth by Apple, Google, Microsoft or..... they may choose to not allow your product. Believe me I agree it would be great to have accessible certification as it would save me time and money. As an after thought I know a lot of low vision (I being one) who do play games, myself not many but I do play some. Sir the visually impaired community is very large and vocal and if you alienate us it is your loss not ours. I would go on but I prefer being nice, have a great night.

A terrific article, and very timely. As a developer that has been focusing on special needs education for the past 10 months, this is close to my heart.

I released an app, Dollar Up earlier this year for the special needs community, and the most requested feature enhancement is to add Switch Access.

My latest app, submitted to Apple just yesterday has been built with Switch Access using a new API that I plan to make available for other developers. That API is now being integrated into Dollar Up, and I hope to submit that update within the next few weeks.

Apple has done a tremendous job with accessibility support, especially in iOS7. The only problem I've found is that if you aren't using Apple's UI framework exclusively (which I don't) then you have to build things yourself. This is why I've elected to build my own API that I can drop into my own apps, and make available later on to encourage other developers to do the same.

Thanks for a great article.

As a low vision individual I thank you for your attempt at making your product accessible, but my question is why you don't use apples api's to make your apps fully accessible. In your later post you stated that you make your apps are only partially accessible due to education reasons, well I have been to three blind centers, one being the KY state facility (which serves both young and older) I spent about nine months there, and two VA facilities four times for a total of twelve weeks, after looking at your dollar up app I see it is for a much younger age group. What you might not realize is that a lot of the instructors are visually impaired, if its not accessible to them their students will never, and I repeat never be introduced to them. I really don't mean to be rude, but what is the purpose of partial accessibility, partial accessibility is a fail. I co moderate a monthly iOS support group for visually impaired vets, one of the things I do is try to test apps that our group has questions about if any part of an app is not accessible it is a non recommendation and will not be purchased by my group and possibly by the VA as a whole.

I'm not sure who you are developing apps for, and I can't speak for all special need groups, but I can speak with authority for the visually impaired and can tell you there is a high percentage of administrators, counselors, instructors and teachers that are visually impaired them selves. So in conclusion if an app is not accessible to the above four an app will never make it to the classroom.

That is really interesting feedback. I'd based my efforts on the needs expressed by a teachers aid that has provided quite a bit of input. Yes, the target age group is fairly young, though for Dollar Up, this can vary depending on the needs of the individual student (some are well into the teens, and the app is also useful for stroke/accident victims who of course can be adults). In Dollar Up I've built in a fairly flexible way for the visually impaired to change colour schemes to improve contrast, etc.

I had been working on the (obviously mistaken) premise that in most cases the teacher assisting the student and configuring the settings would not require switch access.

The animation framework I use for my apps does not, out of the box, support the API Apple has provided (as per the documentation linked in the article). To be honest, after much searching, and asking in a number of forums I hadn't actually found that documentation (which is a little embarrassing now).

Having now read through their documentation, I can see that my own API mirrors the Apple API reasonably closely, so going forward I will look at integrating the two, or simply removing mine altogether, as my preferrence was always to be able to integrate with Apple's API. Writing my own was very simply, an option I took when I felt I didn't have a lot of choice.

With regard to adding switch access to the entire apps, it's something I'll have to look at again now that you've shed a lot more light on the problem. It adds complexity to the apps as every screen now needs to be smarter, but that's no show stopper.

One thing that this article raises is that we can always do more. It's something that, beginning with Dollar Up, has become a core requirement for any of my educational apps. I now always try to think of how I can make the app accessible and playable no matter what the students abilities.

Thank you again for your feedback; it's very helpful.

No thank you for allowing my input, I am a visually impaired vet, and sadly have met many vets with many impairments, the VA is issuing iOS devices to many areas of rehabilitation and the needs are many. I don't need the use of switch input but have pointed out its possibility for TBI, spinal cord injured and those who have low motor skills. What most don't realize is that Apple includes the accessibility features at no additional cost, not true with most other platform, most make a pretty lame attempt, add accessibility software on other platforms is outrageous. The Apple tax that is implied is lost when accessibility is needed. I thank you for not taking my earlier post as a blatant rant, your reply has gained my respect please reply with a list of your apps I would love to try them.

I would love for you to try them however I suspect that we'd be going off topic if I started listing them here. Please feel free to visit my website (www [dot] pkclsoft [dot] com) where you'll see them listed.

All the tools to provide great accessibility are provided in iOS, and most of the time it's about making use of the UI controls according to Apple's recommendations. If devs do this, all users, including those who need to use accessibility features, get good app experiences. Our app, FileBrowser by Stratospherix, has had recommendations from AppleVis.com for its VoiceOver support.

Thank you for using Apples recommendations and making your apps accessible, I haven't tried your app yet but I will, and if it meets my needs and others I will recommend it. Thank you

I am Deaf. Imagine my suprise when i found out that itunes finally have Game of thrones and other HBO show as well but i am even more shocked that show i mentioned has a subtitles support as well. But Amazon do have Game of thrones but they don't have subtitles so that why i torrent the game of thrones so i can burn subtitles. I even tweet to Amazon about this but they said it is not in their plan to bring subtitles support on their amazon prime! but their rival Netflix do support them So that why i didn't sign up to them when they offer me free amazon prime for month. I am more likely to stay on Apple ecosystem in future. All i can say to them keep up and sky is the limits for accessibilty!

Rene,
Thank you so much for this piece. I am a visually impaired user and trainer of assistive technology. I am just so amazed by what Apple has been doing for users with disabilities and am also so pleased to read about iMore's efforts in promoting accessibility. Years ago, accessibility was hardly mentioned in the mainstream tech media and it's just so wonderful to see it getting so much attention, as it will alert more developers to ensure that their apps, products and services are accessible to everyone.

I read this article and suddenly I think that a lot of the assessability stuff iphone and other are working on could be used towards AI. A blind person that cannot see but uses the iphone to get around. Siri, ect.

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