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Making a Difference by Thrusting Accessibility into the Public Sphere

January 7, 2011 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

On Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010, Karen and I enjoyed a nice dinner meeting with Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Marc Parry in a nearby Applebee’s restaurant for an initial in-person interview as part of a story he was writing about technology accessibility for blind college students. Over the following Monday and Tuesday, Marc and I spent a great deal of time reviewing and testing the accessibility or inaccessibility of a number of college-related websites.

On Dec. 12, 2010, the Chronicle published an article entitled Blind Students Demand Access to Online Course Materials, in which my contributions were prominent.

The article highlighted significant accessibility barriers with ASU on Facebook, an application designed to help Arizona State University students connect in a virtual community. The app, developed by San Francisco-based Inigral, Inc., featured controls that couldn’t be accessed by keyboard navigation and images lacking text descriptions.

An Inigral representative contacted me within a few days of the publication of the article, saying she would be in the Phoenix area and asking if we could meet in person to discuss the situation. I agreed, a lunch meeting was scheduled then postponed that very morning till January due to family circumstances.

On Friday, Marc published After Chronicle Story, a Tech Company Improves Accessibility for Blind Users on the publication’s Wired Campus blog, stating that Inigral representatives met with the university’s Disability Resource Center and work is underway to improve the app’s accessibility.

After briefly reviewing the ASU on Facebook app as of Friday, Jan. 7, I can report that significant improvements have already been achieved. The “Go to App” link can now be followed using keyboard navigation, the website is more usable and I notice fewer images lacking descriptions.

Inigral’s co-founder, Joseph Sofaer, posted an accurate Jan. 4 article about the key elements of good website accessibility on the company’s blog.

The important point I hope readers will take away is that advocating for accessibility does make a difference. One more web-based application is now going to be accessible because a blind person agreed to be part of an article published in a widely-reade higher-education publication. It is critical for us to continue going after what we know is right: the equal accessibility that affords us the full participation we must have in order to learn, live and work in society as productive members alongside our sighted peers. This means we absolutely must pound the pavement. When we encounter an inaccessible app, piece of software or website, we *MUST* contact the company about it right away asking that it be corrected. If we don’t get timely responses, we need to follow up, escalating communications as far and as high in a company’s chain of command as they must go in order to get results. It’s a lot of hard work that can’t be done by one person, so I urge each and every one of you out there, whether you are a blind person or a sighted one who cares about us, to do your part by taking each and every possible opportunity to advocate, kick the ball out of the stadium, score the touchdown and win the game for the pro-accessibility team!

iPhone App Maker Justifies Charging Blind Customers Extra for VoiceOver Accessibility

December 23, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

A recent version 2.0 update to Awareness!, an iOS app that enables the user of an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch to hear important sounds in their environment while listening through headphones, features six available in-app purchases, including one that enables VoiceOver accessibility for the company’s blind customers.

Awareness! The Headphone App, authored by small developer Essency, costs 99 cents in the iTunes Store. VoiceOver support for the app costs blind customers over five times its original price at $4.99.

Essency co-founder Alex Georgiou said the extra cost comes from the added expense and development time required to make Awareness! Accessible with Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader.

“Awareness! is a pretty unusual App. Version 1.x used a custom interface that did not lend itself very well for VoiceOver,” he said. “Our developers tried relabeling all the controls and applied the VoiceOver tags as per spec but this didn’t improve things much. There were so many taps and swipe gestures involved in changing just one setting that it really was unusable.”

Essency’s developers tackled the accessibility challenge by means of a technique the blind community knows all too well with websites like Amazon and Safeway that offer a separate, incomplete accessibility experience requiring companies to spend additional funds on specialized, unwanted customer-service training and technical maintenance tasks.

“The solution was to create a VoiceOver-specific interface, however, this created another headache for our developers,” Georgiou said. “It meant having the equivalent of a dual interface: one interface with the custom controllers and the other optimized for VoiceOver. It was almost like merging another version of Awareness! in the existing app.”

As an example of the need for a dual-interface approach and a challenge to the stated simplicity of making iOS apps accessible, Georgiou described a portion of the app’s user interface the developers struggled to make accessible with VoiceOver:

“Awareness! features an arched scale marked in percentages in the centre of a landscape screen with a needle that pivots from left to right in correspondence to sound picked up by either the built in mic or inline headphones. You change the mic threshold by moving your finger over the arched scale which uses a red filling to let you know where it’s set. At the same time, a numerical display appears telling you the dBA value of the setting. When the needle hits the red, the mic is switched on and routed to your headphones. To the right you have the mic volume slider, turn the mic volume up or down by sliding your finger over it. Then you have a series of buttons placed around the edges that control things like the vibrate alarm, autoset, mic trigger and the settings page access.”

Georgiou said maintaining two separate user interfaces, one for blind customers and another for sighted, comes at a high price.

“At the predicted uptake of VoiceOver users, we do not expect to break even on the VoiceOver interface for at least 12 to 18 months unless something spectacular happens with sales,” he said. “We would have loved to have made this option free, unfortunately the VoiceOver upgrade required a pretty major investment, representing around 60% of the budget for V2 which could have been used to further refine Awareness and introduce new features aimed at a mass market.”

Georgiou said this dual-interface scheme will continue to represent a significant burden to Essency’s bottom line in spite of the added charge to blind customers.

“Our forecasts show that at best we could expect perhaps an extra 1 or 2 thousand VoiceOver users over the next 12 to 18 months,” he said. “At the current pricing this would barely cover the costs for the VoiceOver interface development.”

Georgiou said payment of the $4.99 accessibility charge does not make the app fully accessible at this time.

“It is our intention that the VoiceOver interface will continue to be developed with new features such as AutoPause and AutoSet Plus being added on for free,” he said. “Lack of time did not allow these features to be included in this update.”

Georgiou said the decision to make Awareness! Accessible had nothing to do with business.

“From a business perspective it really didn’t make sense for us to invest in a VoiceOver version but we decided to go ahead with the VoiceOver version despite the extra costs because we really want to support the blind and visually impaired,” he said. “It was a decision based on heartfelt emotion, not business.”

Georgiou said accessibility should be about gratitude and he would even consider it acceptable for a company to charge his daughter four to five times as much for something she needed if she were to have a disability.

“Honestly, I would be grateful and want to encourage as many parties as possible to consider accessibility in apps and in fact in all areas of life,” he said. “I would not object to any developer charging their expense for adding functionality that allowed my daughter to use an app that improved her life in any way. In this case, better to have than not.”

Georgiou said he wants to make it clear he and his company do not intend to exploit or harm blind people.

“I first came into contact with a blind couple when I was 10 years old through a Christian Sunday school (over 38 years ago),” he said. “They were the kindest couple I ever met and remember being amazed at the things they managed to do without sight. I remember them fondly. I could not imagine myself or my partner doing anything to hurt the blind community.”

A common thread in many of Georgiou’s statements seems to ask how a small company strikes a balance between doing the right thing and running a financially sustainable business that supports their families.

“I don’t think you understand, we’re a tiny company. We’re not a corporate,” he said. “The founders are just two guys who have families with kids, I’ve got seven!”

Georgiou said he understands how accessibility is a human right that ought to be encouraged and protected.

“I recognize that there is a problem here that can be applied to the world in general and it’s important to set an acceptable precedent,” he said. “I think I’ve already made my opinions clear in that I believe civilized society should allow no discrimination whatsoever.”

In spite of accessibility as a human right in the civilized world, Georgiou said he believes this consideration must be balanced with other practical business needs.

“When it comes to private companies, innovation, medicine, technology, etc., It’s ultra-important all are both encouraged and incentivized to use their talents to improve quality of life in all areas,” Georgiou said. “The question is who pays for it? The affected community? The government? The companies involved?”

My Proposed Dec. 16 ADA Regulatory Hearing Testimony

December 14, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I will be testifying on Dec. 16 in Washington D.C. at a Department of Justice hearing on proposed new ADA regulations to expand accessibility requirements for websites, closed captioning, video description, electronic equipment (ATMs, kiosks, payment terminals) and emergency-notification technology.

I will have five minutes to speak. The following is a written copy of my proposed testimony. I welcome all constructive feedback.

I lost my job two years ago because my employer refused to make critical software accessible to me as a blind person. The resulting economic loss converted me from a contributing, tax-paying member of society earning $33,000 annually to a Social Security beneficiary taking $16,000 each year from the system. I am testifying here today to ask you to take necessary steps that will provide decision makers with the guidance necessary to ensure companies, educational institutions, government agencies and all organizations allow full participation by everyone, including people with disabilities.

I believe that, here in the 21st century, whether or not to be accessible to people with disabilities is largely a choice rather than a matter of technical challenge. Companies like Adobe Systems, Apple and Microsoft provide thousands of hours of audio and video tutorials and many more pages of written documentation covering techniques available for using their technologies to create accessible information and software. Non-profit organizations like the Web Accessibility Initiative and Web Accessibility In Mind, and government agencies like the Access Board also deliver useful assistance for making websites and other technologies accessible. The field of available information on accessibility is expanding every day, so why does most technology continue to lock out people with disabilities? What must be done to incentivize decision makers to drive the move toward universal accessibility and inclusion for everyone?

It’s a sad fact that, while a small number of agencies, companies and organizations voluntarily choose to include people with disabilities by implementing accessibility measures, most choose to continue excluding people with disabilities by failing to consider accessibility in the development of new products and by ignoring requests to phase accessibility into existing products and services. One of the purposes of our government is to ensure equality of opportunity for everybody. In that light, I am asking that the Department of Justice enact expanded ADA regulations that guide decision makers to a time and place where all of us can live, learn and work regardless of our disabilities. In other words, I am asking the Department of Justice to draft regulations that result in the most possible accessibility.

Given the depth and breadth of resources and technologies available today to make Web sites accessible, I ask the Department of Justice to require all entities covered under the ADA, including companies, government agencies and organizations of all sizes, to make their Web information and services accessible to people with disabilities by way of standards such as the Web Accessibility Initiative’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) or Section 508. It makes sense to require accessibility for all brand-new websites as soon as they are put online for public consumption and to allow accessibility to be phased in for existing websites, where the costs and time needed are much greater in cases where accessibility was not a consideration at the beginning of the development process. Accessibility is a choice and, given the availability of resources and technology, I do not believe there should be any permitted alternatives to website accessibility.

In the same way people with disabilities need access to software and websites, we must also be granted the opportunity to use equipment and furniture on terms of equality with people who do not have disabilities. Banks like J.P. Morgan Chase and technology leaders like Apple have proven that equipment including ATMs, computers, MP3 players, smart phones and voting machines can be made accessible. As this equipment, and other technologies like point-of-sale terminals, become the default ways of doing business, I am asking that the Department of Justice enact regulations that will result in the full inclusion of people with disabilities through accessibility without delay. As is the case with websites, I believe it is reasonable for brand-new equipment to be accessible at the time it is manufactured and sold and for accessibility to be phased in as old equipment is replaced with new, accessible versions as they are released to the marketplace.

Imagine what would happen if you lost access to your money. How would you react if you were barred from buying groceries because you couldn’t use the payment terminal? How would you feel if you applied for the job of your dreams, only to find out you couldn’t be hired because you were the only employee who wouldn’t be able to use the office copier, the FAX machine or a critical piece of computer software needed in order to carry out the duties?

I hope the answers to these questions will guide the Department of Justice to enact ADA regulations that mandate accessibility for newly manufactured equipment and phase it in for businesses as they replace old equipment with new models.

Finally, what happens to people with disabilities when our lives depend on access to technology in an emergency? Do our lives hold the same value to society and do we have the same right to save our lives as people without disabilities?

Advocates like myself are testing the answers to those questions right now as we try to get Everbridge, a company that provides emergency notification services to universities and other ADA-covered companies and organizations, to make its website accessible to blind people. If a university uses Everbridge to provide emergency notification to its students, faculty and staff, do blind people have the right to receive the same information at the same time? Sadly, thus far, Everbridge has effectively said “no” by completely ignoring the requests of blind people to make its services accessible.

It’s a sad fact that most businesses, government agencies and organizations continue to believe it is acceptable to ignore the accessibility requests of people with disabilities or to pat them on the head and tell them they’ll get around to it one of these days. The Department of Justice can send a clear message through the ADA regulatory process, that the value of people with disabilities is the same as that of people without disabilities and that they deserve the accessibility necessary to enable the full participation only equal opportunity can provide.

Categories: accessibility, ADA, advocacy

Standing Foursquare for Accessibility

November 17, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately 30-minute podcast, I demonstrate the foursquare iPhone app and describe opportunities for improving its accessibility to blind users who rely on Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader.

Advocates have started a topic on foursquare’s Get Satisfaction community forum and blind foursquare users are asked to post comments about their experiences with the app and to describe how they would like to see its accessibility improved.

I have also created this demonstration for the benefit of those at foursquare with whom a number of us are in discussions about opportunities for enhancing its accessibility.

Download, Play or Pause – Standing Foursquare for Accessibility

Categories: accessibility, advocacy, iPhone

Let Your Voices be Heard at Foursquare

November 3, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The popular Foursquare iPhone app used all over the world to check into and learn about new places is usable by blind people, but it’s accessibility could be significantly improved by the developers.

A new topic was posted Tuesday on Foursquare’s Get Satisfaction forum asking for labeled buttons, fields and other controls to reduce confusion and make the iPhone app easier to use for blind people who rely on Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader.

We ask all who regularly read this journal or follow us on Twitter to review this topic and leave your own comments. This app has featured many unlabeled controls for a long time now. It’s only through vigorous participation that we’re going to get Foursquare to pay attention to our concerns and fix the accessibility issues.

Letter to Cronkite School Dean Christopher Callahan About the Need for Accessibility

September 17, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Many of you will note that, recently, I have been posting comments on Twitter about my journalism school’s lack of accessibility. These comments were driven by my frustration with what I perceived to be the school’s lack of interest in improving the accessibility of its websites and other technology resources as evidenced by its ignoring and failing to take seriously previous correspondence I have undertaken with Dean Christopher Callahan.

In response to my tweets, I began receiving direct messages from Dean Callahan expressing concerns and disappointment with my approach to these issues. Haven’t I heard that before?

Stating he had previously invited me to meet with him to discuss solutions, he did so again. I never received that previous invitation. I’m not saying it was not sent, just that I did not, for whatever reason, receive the message.

Those of you who truly know how I approach these matters also know that I never take a fighting stance with anyone who is constructively engaging with me or others to improve accessibility. Doing so would be counterproductive and undeserved. The hammer approach is reserved strictly for those who outright ignore me or who show the bravery to actually make a statement justifying their ongoing discrimination against and exclusion of blind people from full participation through inaccessibility.

Trusting that Dean Callahan previously sent a constructive invitation to engage in discussions, I apologized for the character of my Twitter posts and agreed to an Oct. 5 meeting to discuss how the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication can successfully address accessibility in light of its stated diversity policies.

As part of that correspondence with Dean Callahan, I restated an earlier promise to send him an accessibility assessment of one of the school’s websites along with useful resources for making websites accessible. The following letter, sent to Dean Callahan Friday afternoon, fulfills that promise and serves as my ongoing effort to work with the Cronkite School to become more accessible to faculty, staff and students with disabilities and to educate future online media content creators and editors about the need to make sure their work is accessible to all audience members.

Hello Dean Callahan,

As you have requested, please find two examples of accessible media websites along with some resources that can be useful in making the Web more accessible to people with disabilities.

BBC

The BBC works to make its Web presence accessible. Although it is not perfect in all respects, their efforts are evolving in the right direction.

Here is a link to BBC’s accessibility help page.

The key point to be clearly understood is that BBC publicly states that it cares about accessibility and works to make positive changes in that area so as to include members of its audience who have disabilities.

National Public Radio

NPR also makes the bulk of its Web presence accessible, although it doesn’t state it as loudly as does BBC.

The organization offers a text-only site.

The use of text-only sites is controversial, and I personally disagree with the practice, as the tendency is to update the “graphical” site without providing exactly the same content on the often-forgotten text-only edition. When this oversight is noted, it represents a separate-but-unequal situation which was banned by the Supreme Court in the 1960s as it was being applied in the segregation of African-Americans.

Accessibility Assessment of CronkiteNewsOnline.com

There are a number of unfortunate elements on the Cronkite News website that currently make it difficult to use for blind readers. Further, it seems recent updates to the site are making it even less accessible.

Missing Alt Tags for Graphics

The most obvious accessibility concern with the site is the lack of descriptive alt text tags for images. These HTML tags can provide a text-based description for graphics and they should be used for all important images on a site.

The site’s navigation area sounds like this for a blind screen-reader user:

nav/home
nav/about
nav/stories
nav/newswatch
nav/news21
nav/cronkite
nav/contact

Although this is not a show stopper, the presentation could be easily improved by simply adding appropriate descriptive alt text tags to those graphics.

Other missing alt tags are more serious, as there is no way to determine the content to which they will link unless the user simply follows the link to find out. That’s not right unless a sighted user must play the same guessing game.

For example, a link near the text about downloading mobile apps just says “img/front_cn.” What’s that?

Even the link that says “img/front_azfactcheck” won’t be clear to most readers.

Navigating Stories

Navigating to and reading stories is possible by tabbing to and pressing enter on links, but it could be far better. Consider using headings on the titles for each story. When this is done, as is the case on many blogs and some other media websites, blind and sighted users alike can more easily and quickly move from story to story.

Video Links Next to Stories

A link that happens to be missing its alt text tag, “img/icon-video,” appears next to most stories on the site. Pressing enter on that link seems to do nothing, although it’s clearly meant to allow the viewer to watch a video. What is this link supposed to do once clicked?

Reading and Watching Stories

There are difficulties once a story has been opened for reading or viewing.

Let’s take the Sept. 16 story titled Ranked No. 1 in country for West Nile virus, Arizona is fighting back as an example.

A link at the top of the story is missing its alt text tag. It says “09/16-westnile-video img/tp24.” What does this mean exactly? Clicking the link seems to do nothing.

A text link labeled “watch now” also seems to go nowhere.

It is clear that some sort of video player is being used which doesn’t work on all systems.

What technology is being used to play videos on the site? Is it Flash or Silverlight?

There are some steps that can be taken to make multimedia sites more accessible.

Please see the resources coming right up.

Web Accessibility Resources

These resources are simply examples of sites that provide best practices and other information about making websites accessible.

Accessibility in the Cronkite School Curriculum

Finally, I am deeply concerned about the lack of attention to accessibility in the teaching of classes like JMC 305, JMC 460 and the Saturday online media academies.

Many resources exist for developers to make their sites accessible. Why not include some assignments and good information about accessibility in these courses? After all, creators of online media are going to find themselves confronting organizations and people who advocate staunchly for accessibility and are thus going to find themselves directed by corporate management types who wish to avoid lawsuits, public relations disasters and other similar risks to their bottom lines.

Best regards,

Darrell

After reading the letter, I invite all of you to comment. What did you like? What didn’t you like? What additional resources might help a journalism school make its technology accessible or educate others on accessibility? As always, the door hangs wide open and awaits your constructive feedback.

Kindle Accessibility Review: How Far Has Amazon Opened the Door to the Blind?

August 31, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

By guest writer Larry Wanger.

The Kindle is an electronic book reading device produced by Amazon that provides access to hundreds of thousands of in-copyright books and well over a million more that are either out of print or in the public domain. In other words, it’s pretty safe to say that if it’s not available on the Kindle it’s not available in e-book format.

The question we must ask is, “how effectively does the new Kindle 3 make the books in this vast library accessible to blind readers”?

While it is clear that Amazon has taken some steps in the right direction to make the new book reader accessible, this review will point out significant areas where there’s a great deal of work to be done in order for the company to claim it sells a truly accessible product.

The Pros:

  • A device with access to over 600,000 books and over a million more out of copyright.
  • Light weight, small and very portable.
  • Outstanding battery life.
  • Works for the casual reader who doesn’t expect more than simply being able to read a book.

The Cons:

  • Speech output that is less than stellar.
  • There may be over 600,000 books but text to speech doesn’t work on all of them.
  • The new Kindle just won’t fit the bill for students, researchers or serious readers who demand a lot in terms of navigation and accessibility.

Those who know me are aware that I tend to be an early adopter. If a new device or technology hits the market and if it promises accessibility I find myself wishing for it. So, in July when Amazon began taking orders for the new Kindle I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. The following paragraphs highlight the good, the bad and what needs work on the new Kindle. I’ve done all of the heavy lifting and spent hours finding the strengths and shortfalls of the new reader.

You’ll find nearly 650,000 copyrighted books in the store. Amazon says the mission of the Kindle team is to put every book in the world in your hands within 60 seconds. And, while they may be able to do that, they continue to fall short in terms of providing that level of accessibility to the blind community. 

Out of the box, the Kindle is not accessible. The shipment includes a print quick-start guide and the Kindle has printed instructions on the screen telling the owner how to begin using the device. No disk is included with a copy of the guide. You’ll need to go to the Kindle web site to find a downloadable PDF copy of the manual. 

Turning on the Kindle is fairly easy. A sliding switch is located on the bottom edge of the device. However, no speech is available just by firing up the Kindle. You will need assistance navigating the menus so that a feature called Voice Guide can be activated. Note: this is a one-time activation and the Voice Guide remains on for future use.

To improve your experience when turning on your Kindle the first time, make sure you set up an account on the Amazon store prior to purchase. By doing this, your Kindle will arrive registered with your account information and you’ll save yourself some headaches. More on the cause of the potential headaches later. 

Before elaborating on Voice Guide, it’s worth noting that there are two aspects to accessibility on the device. Voice Guide is a feature that gives you a level of accessibility to menus and non-book-reading functions on the Kindle. Meanwhile, Text to Speech or TTS is what enables you to read books, magazines, newspapers, blogs and other materials you download to the Kindle. It may be best to think of Kindle as having two screen readers even though they use the same voices and speech.

The Kindle makes use of a very simple menu structure. By using Voice Guide one can move around the menus and make selections and hear various options and settings. My experience thus far indicates that all menus are fully accessible by using the 5-way key located on the lower right corner of the Kindle keyboard. Unfortunately, accessibility with Voice Guide more or less ends with the menus. 

TTS is the feature used for reading books and other publications available on the Kindle store. The store features a wide variety of content beyond books. One can read many popular magazines, local, regional and national newspapers and blogs. The key to being able to access this wealth of information and entertainment is whether or not the publisher has allowed Amazon to enable the TTS option. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any hard numbers in terms of how many publications on the store restrict the TTS feature. Previously, publishers had indicated concerns over copyright and possible loss of audio book sales due to this feature of the Kindle. Clearly, this issue must be resolved before the Kindle is widely adopted by the blind community. Still, my initial experiences are that most books I encounter do allow for TTS usage. Each book listing on the store clearly indicates whether or not TTS is enabled for that title. Additionally, thanks to the free two-week trial offered with magazines and newspapers, I was able to test several successfully with TTS. Imagine waking up with your local paper already waiting for you on your Kindle thanks to the included wireless synching.

Activating TTS appears to be simple at first but quickly becomes a bit tedious. First, TTS must be turned on each time you launch a book. Say, for example, I am reading Time Magazine, which supports use of TTS, but then I decide to resume reading the book I purchased from the Kindle Store last week. I hit the Home button to leave Time Magazine and land at the main menu. I then use the arrow key to move through the selections and then choose the book I want to resume reading. Kindle opens to the page I last read; however, the TTS doesn’t just resume reading. Instead, I must hit a button to bring up options for that book. These include options to adjust typeface, font size and, if allowed, the TTS option. Choosing to turn on the TTS option results in Kindle resuming reading out loud from the place you previously left off. If you decide to go back to Time Magazine you will need to repeat this same process. Kindle does include use of a specific key combination to immediately begin use of TTS, though I have experienced some difficulties with this.

Whether you are a student conducting formal research for a term paper or a casual reader trying to move by paragraph or page within the publication you are reading, easy and quick navigation that is speech friendly is essential. Unfortunately, Kindle falls short in this area. While you can navigate by chapter or article, finer navigation by paragraph, sentence, line, word or character is not supported at this time. If you are looking for a product that can simply read books then the Kindle is probably a good choice; however, if you need detailed navigation, you would be better served by other reading formats.

The new Kindle offers a significant number of features beyond simply reading. For example, you can bookmark pages for later reference, make notes, highlight passages and share them on popular social media sites and look up words in the built-in dictionary. You can even search for selected words or phrases on Google and a number of other websites. Unfortunately, neither Voice Guide nor TTS work with these features and, therefore, they are not accessible. 

Remember those potential headaches I mentioned previously? One of the main selling points of the Kindle is the ability to shop for and buy books from the Kindle Store and have them appear almost immediately on your device. Sounds great right? Well, don’t expect Voice Guide or TTS to give you access to the Internets largest book store. The built in Web browser is currently not able to be accessed by low vision or blind users. You will need to shop for books on your computer or mobile phone.

Tip: the Kindle Store interface is very accessible on the iPhone through the otherwise useless Kindle app. (The Kindle app does not currently allow for Voice Over support on the iPhone or iPad platform but one can shop from within the app. Once purchased from one of these platforms, books appear on the Kindle. In short, you cannot utilize the built in web browser and therefore should expect to be unable to independently register your Kindle or to purchase books on the device itself.

Anyone who has an interest in the e-book and portable reader market knows that things have changed significantly over the past year. The Kindle is just one of many portable readers available today. The iPad and the accompanying iBooks store further disrupted the market earlier this year and more change is inevitable. Options for blind readers are also very diverse. Beyond the widely known BARD, digital NLS services and Book Share, we can choose iBooks as an option. Further changes took place just last week with increased accessibility to the KOBO service now available on Apple’s portable devices and then the introduction of the more accessible Kindle on the 27th.

Is the Kindle the best choice for you? You are the only person who can answer that question. If you do not need detailed navigation and can accept purchasing Kindle books on your mobile phone or computer then it will work well for you. However, if you need detailed navigation and want access to every feature on the device, then you should look elsewhere. My experience has been quite positive and I look forward to reading many books that I otherwise may have never found thanks to the expanded level of accessibility now available.

Larry Wanger is an experienced advocate, manager and leader in the disability field with expertise in audio production, journalism and marketing. He is employed as an operations manager at Arizona Bridge to Independent Living where he oversees the organization’s employment services programs for people with disabilities.

Additional Reading

These selected articles outline a brief history of the Kindle accessibility controversy:

Kindle 3 Reviews from around the technology industry:

Categories: accessibility, Kindle, reviews

Apple Needs to Refund VoiceOver Users for Inaccessible Apps

August 15, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

By guest writer Michael Hansen.

With the release of IM+ Pro—an instant messaging client for the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad—with VoiceOver support, I got to thinking: I don’t mind paying $10 to an app developer for an app with full VoiceOver accessibility. However, I do mind paying any amount to a developer for an application that I cannot use. The exception is @Planetbeing’s Signal app, which I would buy regardless because he and the Dev Team have done the jailbreak community a great service with all of their hard work on jailbreaks/unlocks for the iOS platform. @Planetbeing’s app aside (which I haven’t bought yet because I cannot currently access Cydia with VoiceOver), I see no reason to pay for an application that I cannot use, be it an iPhone app or something for my Windows computer.

Palringo Poses Problems

Within the last couple weeks, I purchased Palringo Instant Messenger Premium, developed by Palringo Limited, from the iTunes Store. I was able to log into AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), but was not able to log into Facebook. VoiceOver reported “Facebook…logging in,” when I tapped that icon. Even after I confirmed that Palringo accessing Facebook was okay (my account had been frozen because Facebook had not recognized Palringo) I still got the same “logging in” message.

Accessibility Problems Start With AIM

In AIM, the situation was different but no less problematic. While I was able to access my contacts list and receive messages, I was unable to read the messages—VoiceOver would read the contact’s name but not the message itself. There went $4.99. Thanks, Palringo.

Apple Grants One-Time Refund for Palringo…Grudgingly

This afternoon, I contacted Apple through the iTunes Store to request a refund for Palringo Instant Messenger Premium, due to inaccessibility. In an e-mail sent at 6:22 PM CDT today, Apple said they would reverse the charge for Palringo Instant Messenger Premium—just this one time.

“I’m sorry to hear that you can’t use ‘Palringo Instant Messenger Premium’ with your device,” said Lilly, the iTunes Customer Support representative who responded to my request. “Please note that The iTunes Store Terms of Sale state that all sales are final, so this is a one-time exception.”

So what does Apple expect the blindness community to do? Pay for apps and not be able to use them? Install pirated versions to try them out before buying them in the app store? I don’t think so.

Apple needs to consistently provide refunds to VoiceOver users for inaccessible apps—it’s as simple as that. I will never download pirated applications, but honestly, given that Apple does not have an app trial service, I’m not surprised that Piracy is as big as it is—the lack of a trial service effects many more people than just VoiceOver users. It is in Apple’s best interests, no matter what way they look at it, to institute a trial service—the Android folks have already figured that one out.

I also think that Apple should require developers to list VoiceOver support in their application descriptions in the iTunes store, similar to how they list iOS version compatibility.

Next Steps Likely Uphill

I plan to contact Palringo Limited to ask about future accessibility of their products. I am also going to present my concerns to Apple.

Please stay tuned, as I will write when I have any updates.

Michael Hansen is totally blind and is a senior at Addison Trail High School in Addison, IL. Previously, he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Skyline newspaper at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, IL, during the 2009-2010 school year. He can be reached at AMTK62 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Accessible Instant Messaging iPhone App Hits the iTunes Store

August 13, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

A highly-anticipated update to Shape Services’ popular IM+ iPhone app featuring comprehensive VoiceOver accessibility hit the iTunes Store Thursday.

According to its iTunes Store entry, the new version 4.30 of this app, renamed IM+ Pro, features “New themes and wallpapers, hi-res graphics for iPhone 4, full VoiceOver support, setting own display picture from iPhone 4 front camera, improved contact search and bug fixes.”

Blind high school senior Michael Hansen said he was delighted to learn of the accessible instant messaging option for his new iPhone.

“I use my iPhone mainly for various applications, messaging, and phone calls,” Hansen said. “I just found out about it this morning and I immediately purchased the app and tweeted to @implus to thank them for their work.”

He said IM+ Pro works better for him than other apps he has tried.

“I started out last week using Palringo, and I found that to be unsatisfactory because I could not log into Facebook and I could not read messages that were sent to me from AOL Instant Messenger,” Hansen said. “There went $4. I think that Apple should refund VoiceOver users if an app they purchased is not accessible. ”

He said IM+ works just fine with AIM, but he is having an accessibility problem connecting with Facebook.

“I have tried to connect to AOL Instant Messenger and Facebook; AIM worked fine, but Facebook did not,” Hansen said. “When I tried to add Facebook as a service, I got a message saying that I would have to tap the ‘Connect’ button to validate my information. However, I could not, for the life of me, find the ‘Connect’ button.”

He said he is confident the Facebook issue will be fixed quickly.

“I think that Shape Services has done the VoiceOver community a big service, and the Facebook connect button issue is a small bump in the road which I would imagine they could fix quickly,” Hansen said. “I just wish more app developers cared about accessibility—that’s the biggest problem with using an iPhone right now.”

Shape Services’ business development team official Natalia Kasyanova said the company has another nice surprise in store for blind users in the coming weeks.

“I would like to confirm that we are planning to release an IM+ Lite version with VoiceOver support by the end of August. It is a free adware version of IM+ which has the same functionality as IM+ Pro,” Kasyanova said. “We hope that it will make instant messaging even more available for blind users of iPhones and iPads.”

Popular Instant Messaging iPhone App to Get VoiceOver Accessibility

August 4, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Shape Services committed Wednesday to make its flagship IM+ instant messaging application for the iPhone accessible to blind people by way of Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader.

“We are sending IM+ Pro v.4.3 with VoiceOver support for App Store review today and expect its publishing in a week or so,” said Natalia Kasyanova, a representative from the company’s business development team in a Wednesday morning e-mail.

Kasyanova said VoiceOver accessibility will move to IM+ Lite in the coming weeks and to the rest of the company’s products over an unspecified time frame.

“Apple’s VoiceOver accessibility programming guide is really helpful, however, its implementation process requires some time and developers’ resources, considering the number of Shape’s apps in iTunes,” she said. “We realize the importance of disabled peoples’ support and would try to do our best in making our apps available and useful for them.”

Kasyanova said Shape Services invites feedback through the built-in forms found in its apps, the company’s Support Center website, the IM+ Forum and Twitter.

Kasyanova said the company announces beta testing opportunities from time to time and blind VoiceOver users are welcome to apply.

Categories: accessibility, iPhone