The phrase “equal access” is certainly a contested term. “Reasonable accommodation” is another one of those terms with legal and moral implications that seem to demand debate. From courtrooms, government chambers all the way to personal domiciles. The implications of both these notions is far reaching—impacting the vast majority of citizens at least once in their lifetime.
It is quite remarkable when a company achieves a breakthrough in accessibility that shifts both the notion of equal access and “reasonable accommodation” through its embrace of universal design of a main stream mass market product. Apple’s iPad is certainly a game changer in the technological sphere, but it also has deeper implications for both future devices and content delivery methods—equal access has become reasonable without challenge.
Apple’s embrace of eBooks as a media format and its incorporation of device level accessibility has meant that from day one, right from the box, this device could be turned on, used to purchase books and let the user to read a book—visually impaired or not.
To be clear, Apple was not the single creator of this event. Kudos must go to generations of people who have created a myriad of technical, social and political possibilities that has allowed Apple to bring this product to market. Howeve, Apple (or better still the engineers) did have the foresight to realize that if they are responsible for how something is displayed on their devices it also becomes their responsibility to ensure sure it is accessible. VoiceOver has meant that screenreader users could be first-class operating system users on those devices and not held hostage to third-party tack-ons which cost two to three times the device itself.
Change has occurred. Screenreader users can be fist day adopters, just like anyone else!
Wait a minute!
The implications of equal access and reasonable accommodation have not gone away.
VoiceOver is a great tool for the visually impaired, especially in cases where very little or no visual information can be processed. Herein lies the the problem. Voiceover, as an accessibility tool, must be turned on as a setting and when it is activated it changes the way a user can interact with the device. What about people with cognitive issues that could benefit from a form of “on demand” text-to-speech? What about the student who has read the passage five times and could do with a little help? Having to turning on VoicOver to gain text-to-speech access to the text in an eBook becomes a barrier to access. It might even be considered an unreasonable barrier to access.
Why is Apple preventing all users from enjoying the text-to-speech functionality? Or is it something Apple has no control over? Is it out-dated notions of copyright?
Copyright and DRM (Digital Rights Managed) should not be an excuse for copyright owners to pretend text-to-speech capacity is a performance. Text-to-speech is not performance, even in a crowded stadium. Text-to-speech is not the same thing as having an author, or some other celebrity talent, read aloud the latest best-seller with dramatic gusto.
What can be construed as reasonable accommodation has shifted due to a profound shift in technological capacity. In fact, it has shifted so far that reasonable could be construed as having the right to hear any purchased content. Anything less could be construed as a denial of the user’s rights and an abdication of social responsibility.
Bradley Hodges says it well on AFB AccessWorld:
There have been two transformative moments in my professional career that I associate with gaining equal access to the printed word. The first was in the mid-’90s, when, as a university researcher, my department obtained a braille embosser and access to the fledgling Internet. One afternoon, a graduate assistant who worked with me casually dropped a braille copy of the cover article from that week’s Time magazine on my desk. For the first time, I could read the same text as my sighted colleagues at the same time they did.
The second transformative moment took place Monday evening, April 5, 2010. On that night, I purchased a book from a book store, exactly as my sighted neighbors and colleagues would. I then sat in my den and read that book on the same device as my sighted counterparts…
It is time for that transformative moment to occur to many more people, universal access really should be universal.