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VoiceOver

Biting the Hands that Feed

Chris Hofstader answers the question of why the NFB would pursue those that push the boundaries while letting others of the hook.

At the NFB convention in 2010, they gave Apple one of their accessibility awards. In 2011, Apple decided that because of its upcoming Lion operating system release that they would not attend any of what we in the blindness biz call “the summer shows” – including the national NFB convention, the ACB convention, Sight Village in UK and various smaller conferences. Apple representatives explained to NFB that they needed to focus on the accessibility of their new OS release and of numerous smaller initiatives they were preparing for autumn 2011.

Curtis Chong, head of NFB in Computer Science, the portion of NFB responsible for computing issues decided to threaten people at Apple with a resolution of condemnation if they didn’t attend the convention. Then, at the convention, he pushed through a resolution deploring the company that has provided an excellent out-of-box experience that is years ahead of their competition. It seems that Curtis did this because his feelings were hurt or some other completely childish motivation for biting the hand that feeds us best.

via The Hands That Feed | hofstader.com. And Daring Fireball

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Ignoring accessibility, or how to make an iPhone less useful

Joe Clark throws down the gauntlet:

How many hot-hot-hot! new iOS apps have impressed legions of fans while demonstrating their developers are too irresponsible or incompetent to make them accessible under VoiceOver?

Shall we start a list?

via Hot new iPhone apps by irresponsible developers Personal Weblog of Joe Clark, Toronto.

Joe  hits out at some great apps that just ignore some of the best accesibility API’s in any development environment.

Online can keep people offline

Distant from Education

Too often the adoption of technology can result in the exclusion of people with disabilities. The selection process for the simplest of software to the most complex usually ignores the needs of people with disabilities. There is an excellent article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education:

More than 19,000 people have visited a new student union that Arizona State University put up last year to build a better sense of campus community.

Darrell Shandrow, a blind senior studying journalism, can’t get through the front door.

He’s stuck because the new social hub is built of bits, not bricks—a private Facebook application for Arizona State students. And, like so much technology used by colleges, the software doesn’t work with the programs that blind people depend on to navigate the Web. (Source: Colleges Lock Out Blind Students Online)

Institutions, including government agencies, need to be advocates for change. There is power in withholding adoption, or ensuring the RFP has strong language that insists on accessibility enhancements to existing packages. The experience of the California State System shows how vendors must be held to the commitment with stop-go indicators for adoption.

Officials at Cal State were troubled that the iTunes software was impossible for many disabled people to use. Blind students and faculty couldn’t use screen-reader programs with it. Closed captioning for deaf users was not properly supported. Officials approached Apple. “We got a lot of glad-handing from them” but few substantial fixes, says Deborah Kaplan, who until this year directed Cal State’s Accessible Technology Initiative.

So Cal State asked its 23 campuses not to use iTunes U in most situations until these basic issues were solved.

Over the past five years, Cal State has waged one of higher education’s most aggressive campaigns for accessible technology. It has adopted stringent standards for vendors and employees. Along with other groups, it has helped force Apple, Google, and Blackboard to improve their software or lose the ability to reach Cal State’s 430,000 students. (Source: Cal State’s Strong Push for Accessible Technology Gets Results)

Technology has lowered the bar on what a reasonable accommodation, it is now easier and cheaper to provide accessible content, yet the barriers remain.

Screenreader on a consumer television device

Apple continues to push accessibility options into more of its devices. With the release of v4.1 of the iOS for AppleTV  VoiceOver was enabled. VoicOver is Apple’s screenreader technology that is wired deeply in the operating system (OS) of all of it’s devices. In the case of its second generation AppleTV, users can now select to turn on VoiceOver to hear all character information read aloud. The ability to naviagte the screen, and to hear the information about the show, movie or music track means that people with visual impairments can use the device.

While it is very effective, it does have some implementation drawbacks. Once turned on, there is no way to control when it reads alphanumeric information, it will read all the information. At the start of a song it will read the title, track number  and album over the sound of the music. If you have the slide show/screen saver set to come on while the music is playing it will reread the track information in the middle of the music. Apple needs to allow users a little control over how and more importantly when this feature works. The solution in the interim is to turn off slide shows.

Apple’s Statement

The VoiceOver accessibility feature brings screen reading to Apple TV, making it easier to use for those who are blind or have impaired vision. You will hear a description of the menu item currently being highlighted by the cursor, other onscreen text, and feedback on video and audio controls. VoiceOver speaks all 18 languages available on Apple TV.

Source: About Apple TV (2nd generation) software updates

Update: 11/25/2010

Out Of The Darkness has more information and  a user experience with AppleTV’s accessibility features.

“Apple is committed to diversity”. This statement can be found on Apple’s website and is reenforced by the multitude of no-extra-cost accessibility features found on each and every device Apple currently manufactures. Source: Of The Darkness

A worthwhile read.

Pervasive accessibility

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.

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