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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

Proposed Accessibility Advocacy Tracking System: Ideas Wanted

July 30, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

As many of my readers know, I am always dreaming up new ways to effectively evangelize accessibility of information technology for the blind. It’s quite literally my mission in life. But, I also know that the work of one individual means nothing without the participation and support of the entire connected online blind community. Precisely measuring that level of participation has been virtually impossible.

It has always been my contention that frequent advocacy done on a consistent basis is absolutely critical in order for our voices to be heard by the technology industry. The conversations I have with company executives keep baring out this assertion. Agencies, businesses and organizations respond to and prioritize feedback based on both its quality and quantity. Executives are looking for clearly presented, detailed feedback on any issue. They’re also looking for numbers. If one, two or even ten people bring up an issue, it’s not likely to get much play especially in a large company like Google, Microsoft or Nuance. Perhaps, if several hundred blind people keep bringing up an issue frequently, it will have a chance to rise to the top and garner the attention it deserves.

We thus understand that successfully concluded accessibility advocacy often requires persistent contact with companies on the part of many individual members of the blind community. How can we achieve this goal as a blind community? Who is advocating? How are they contacting companies? How far are they getting within a company’s corporate chain of command? What are they telling these people? What is the company’s response to the advocacy? What changes are they making to improve accessibility for us? Has the company committed to accessibility or has only a one-time victory been achieved?

Right now, finding answers to these and many other key questions is virtually impossible. Though some organizations like the American Foundation for the Blind, American Council of the Blind, National Federation of the Blind and a few others advocate, we often don’t know their results until they have explicitly come to the blind community for help, a lawsuit has been filed or we learn that structured negotiations have been completed. Little or no attention is given to the advocacy efforts of individual contributors. What incentives do individuals have to do the hard work necessary for grassroots accessibility advocacy to be effective? How many times could the concerted work of individuals achieve a positive result without the need to involve the lawyers or otherwise turn the process into a messy adversarial battle? How could individual efforts be effectively consolidated into one effective, successful advocacy result?

I propose that an online system be created for the purpose of tracking the accessibility advocacy efforts of individuals in the blind community. If a blind person encounters an issue with a piece of hardware or software or a service and believes it may be inaccessible, she visits a website, fills out a simple form and creates a case. A team of volunteers pull the cases out of a queue and work them to the best of their ability. They consult each other and solicit additional assistance from the rest of the blind community. A note is added to the case for each advocacy attempt with the results being tracked along the way. A case is worked until a successful result is achieved, it has been referred for legal action by one of the organizations or it has been determined that no grassroots advocacy effort will resolve the case in a satisfactory manner. A dedicated steering committee meets once per week to discuss the status of the cases in the queue. Cases may be closed only on a majority vote of the members of the steering committee. If that vote is not unanimous, then the case is closed with reservations. Nobody else, including the original creator of the case, may close the issue.

A case management system for doing accessibility advocacy could bring many positive results. Advocates could see the effects of their work as cases move forward along a well-defined process. Technology companies would feel the effects of consistent, quality feedback from a significant number of members of the blind community. When companies choose to be intractible, lawyers could use the information from protracted cases as leads or potential evidence in lawsuits and structured negotiations. Finally, the reporting capabilities of a case management system might make it possible to obtain grants and other sources of funding for some in the blind community to do accessibility advocacy work on a paid basis, thus permitting a greater level of consistent dedication to this all-too-important aspect of securing equal opportunity for the blind.

There are many milestones that must be achieved in order to get such a case management system off the ground. Who or what organization would be willing to sponsor such a project? Who is available and willing to do the work necessary to program such a complex system? How will it be structured? Would building a custom solution work best or is there an existing customer relationship management application that could be modified to meet our needs? What information should be collected and how would it be used? These and many other questions would need to be answered as a first step toward building a system I believe could help move accessibility advocacy for the blind forward by leaps and bounds over its present state.

I would like to start by opening discussions with those who might be interested in actively and consistently volunteering to participate in such a case management system. I ask all those who think they might be interested to subscribe to the blind-access e-mail list for the purpose of discussing the merits of such a system and coordinating specific meetings as it moves forward.

As always, comments to this article are welcome here on the journal as is e-mail to us at editor (at) blindaccessjournal.com.

Apple: New Magic Multi-Touch Trackpad is VoiceOver Compatible

July 27, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Apple confirmed Tuesday that its just-released Magic Trackpad is compatible with VoiceOver for blind users.

A second-level Apple technical support agent identifying himself as Michael said the new trackpad provides the same level of touch screen support found on the company’s multi-touch MacBook computers.

“The Magic Trackpad is really no different than the one found on our MacBooks,” Michael said. “If you’re running version 10.6.4 of Snow Leopard, VoiceOver will recognize that you now have multi-touch support and it will make all those gestures work for you.”

The new Magic Trackpad is a wireless device that connects to Apple’s iMac, Mac Mini, MacBook and Mac Pro computers over bluetooth. It sports an 8-inch surface area with a design that matches the company’s wireless keyboards.

The product is available for sale and ships within 24 hours according to Michael. Interested readers may visit the Apple Store for more information about the new Magic Trackpad.

Categories: accessibility

Jibbigo English-Spanish Translator Update Restores Accessibility

July 26, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The promised Jibbigo English-Spanish Translator update was released Monday with restored VoiceOver accessibility for blind users.

The new version, numbered 1.11127, explicitly fixes the VoiceOver issues and represents a change to the company’s version numbering scheme.

The company has made a commitment to ensuring the ongoing accessibility of its apps, so blind users can look forward to new enhancements and features with greater confidence.

Categories: accessibility, iPhone

Jibbigo English-Spanish Translator Update Breaks Accessibility, Fix Coming Very Soon

July 23, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Andy Lane reported Thursday on the VIPhone e-mail discussion group that the latest update of the Jibbigo English-Spanish translator broke VoiceOver accessibility for blind users.

“When I start Jibbigo, VoiceOver is silent and won’t say anything again until I double click home and close the app,” Lane said. “Even pressing home and entering a new app doesn’t get VoiceOver going again. Breaks it on the entire phone until you can close the app. If you have no vision at all this will be very difficult to do I would imagine.”

Jibbigo consultant Miriam Sachs Martin responded to communications from members of the blind community in less than 24 hours.

“Our latest update had a slight incompatibility with Apple’s new OS4 software. Our engineers have already submitted the fix to Apple, and it should be re-released within about 3 days,” she said. “In the interim, we have taken the precaution of completely removing Spanish-English Jibbigo from the app store so that no other customers should be inconvenienced.”

Martin said Jibbigo is committed to accessibility.

“Jibbigo remains deeply committed to its blind and low-vision users, and we are proud to have a product that is of service to this community,” she said. “We have a high standard of excellent customer service. Anybody with questions or concerns may contact me at info (at) jibbigo.com. They can be assured of a quick reply.”

Lane said he appreciates Jibbigo’s affirmative response.

“You guys won’t believe how good this company have been and how much they clearly care about their users,” Lane said. “I now cannot recommend this company and their product highly enough.”

Categories: accessibility, iPhone

Mobile TV Provider Plans Release of Accessible iPhone App

July 6, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Mobile television provider MobiTV said it plans to incorporate VoiceOver accessibility in its iPhone app by September.

The company streams live and on-demand content from media companies including ABC, ESPN and Nickelodeon to smartphone users.

Blind sports fan Liam Erven said his interest in MobiTV’s iPhone app centers around their extensive coverage of sporting events such as the World Cup and pay-per-view UFC fights.

“Mainly for me there’s ESPN coverage. There’s a lot of stuff they do with sports,” Erven said. “I like to be able to get news and entertainment when I’m out and about and that’s the whole point with the iPhone is to have the world at your fingertips.”

Erven was surprised to find MobiTV’s iPhone app unusable with Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader that enables Braille and speech accessibility for blind users of the iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone.

“I was really disappointed when I found out I couldn’t use it (MobiTV’s iPhone app) because I didn’t understand why small accessibility concessions couldn’t be made,” he said. “I know a lot of companies don’t understand that, hey, there’s this whole interface you can use to make things accessible.”

Ray DeRenzo, chief marketing officer with MobiTV, Inc., said the company understands and will be taking action in the near future on requests to add VoiceOver support.

“We’ve had other inquiries in the past and we’re very sensitive to the fact that we’re not serving a valued segment of the consumer base,” he said. “We published the MobiTV application on the iPhone in April of this year and it was just a matter of trying to get a product to market in an aggressive time frame so we could be able to present content like the World Cup through ESPN.”

DeRenzo said accessibility was always on the company’s roadmap.

“It was always our intent to use the VoiceOver capability on iPhone and we’re going to do that in a subsequent release of the application,” DeRenzo said. “It’s not available presently. We’re going to be doing a release on July 15. It will not be available in that release. In the next release, which is probably within 60 days following the July time frame, we’re going to be enabling VoiceOver capability.”

DeRenzo said MobiTV would like to make its apps for other smartphone platforms, including Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile, available to blind users as their operating systems become accessible.

“We’re going to try to make our products more accessible as device manufacturers enable VoiceOver-like capabilities in their operating systems,” DeRenzo said. “This is the way we’re hoping the industry evolves where each of the device manufacturers and their operating systems have a voice enablement capability that becomes part of the software development kit we can utilize. That’s certainly the case with devices like the iPhone on iOS.”

Erven said making apps like MobiTV accessible could start to bridge the gap between blind users and traditional cable or satellite providers that don’t accommodate customers with disabilities in the set top boxes they use to deliver content.

“The on-demand stuff is nice and that’s one thing you can’t get access to right now on a traditional cable system without a lot of sighted assistance,” Erven said. “More and more companies are going with this entertainment over IP platform. I thought it was really important that these companies know that, hey, look, we’re out here and we use this technology, too.”

Apple provides a free accessibility programming guide to all developers who are willing to make their applications accessible to blind customers.

Categories: accessibility, iPhone

Seeking Blind People Tossed Out of Their Jobs by Discrimination, Inaccessible Technology

October 3, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Are you a blind person who has lost your job due to blatant discrimination or inaccessible technology? If so, we want to hear from you!

In a Sept. 30 press release, President Obama said he proclaims October National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

“Fair access to employment is a fundamental right of every American, including the 54 million people in this country living with disabilities,” Obama said in the press release. “A job can provide financial stability, help maximize our potential, and allow us to achieve our dreams.”

What does this really mean for blind people? Can we have “fair access” to employment while much of the technology used by the sighted remains out of the reach of the screen readers and other assistive technologies that enable us to effectively operate computers? What happens when technology in a workplace changes without a thought to the needs of employees with disabilities? How are we supposed to respond to the removal of “financial stability,” the wasted potential and shattered dreams of blind people who have lost their jobs due to the wreckless actions of thoughtless employers who respond to technology inaccessibility by tossing away the person as though they are yesterday’s newspaper or just so much trash whose usefulness has expired?

“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act substantially increased funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and provided more than $500 million for vocational rehabilitation services, including job training, education, and placement,” said Obama. “If we are to build a world free from unnecessary barriers, stereotypes, and discrimination, we must ensure that every American receives an education that prepares him or her for future success.”

Although blind people continue to face discrimination and negative stereotypes on a daily basis, many are also hired to fill positions in virtually all walks of life based on their qualifications. Through our own experiences in the world of business and employment, many of us are growing to believe the barrier of inaccessibility is a critical factor that holds us down. In an increasing number of cases, employers would love to hire or retain blind people as employees if only the software they must use in order to do their jobs could be accessed with a screen reader.

Let’s use National Disability Employment Awareness Month to make a strong case for greater accessibility. If you have lost your job because of inaccessible technology or were not hired because the software used in the workplace could not be made accessible, we would like to hear from you right away. Now is the opportunity for you to let your voice be heard around the world, not only on Blind Access Journal, but possibly in the mainstream media. Please e-mail employment@blindaccessjournal.com and tell us your story.

Download Instructions for Microsoft Security Essentials

September 30, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Microsoft released its new free anti-malware Security Essentials product to Genuine Windows users Tuesday. The company’s Web developers forgot to make sure that the download process was intuitive for its blind customers. While browsing the Security Essentials Web site, people who rely on screen readers feel or hear a link containing the following text: “A38FFBF2-1122-48B4-AF60-E44F6DC28BD8/mssefullinstall-x86fre-en-us-vista-win7.” Microsoft representatives have been asked about this concern, and a response from the company’s public relations staff is anticipated in the near future.

Until Microsoft corrects the download process, an alternative exists for blind users to gain access to the software. Follow these steps to download Microsoft Security Essentials:

  1. Visit the Microsoft Security Essentials Web site.
  2. Select the “Locales and languages” link.
  3. Press the screen reader keystroke to redraw or refresh the interpretation of the screen’s contents. This command is Insert+Escape for JAWS and System Access, and Insert+Backslash for Window-Eyes. This step is critical in order to view the information that has changed on the dynamic Web page.
  4. Select the country in which you are located from the combo box.
  5. Select the link appropriate for the 32- or 64-bit operating system you are running. The download process begins.
Categories: accessibility, tips