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Redefining Access: Questions to Ponder in the Age of Remote Assistance

March 29, 2018 • Allison Hilliker

Overview

There is an area of assistive technology that has recently been gaining momentum, and I would like to explore what that means for us as blind people. We are seeing an emergence of platforms that allow individuals to virtually connect with sighted assistants. Users refer to this category of technology by different terms such as visual interpreting services, or remote assistance services. The two most common varieties of this tech are apps like Aira or Be My Eyes, but less formal mainstream options such as recruiting assistance via Facetime, Skype, or a screen-sharing program like Zoom are also available. My aim here is not to focus on any one or two apps specifically, rather, I prefer to explore the general category of access technology that these programs represent. New companies providing versions of such technology may come and go in our lifetimes, and the specifics of each service are less important to my purpose here than exploring the overall category that they fall into. In this article, I will use the term remote sighted assistance technologies, or remote assistance, to refer to this general group of tech. Since there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what these technologies are actually called as a group, I’ll use this term for clarity.

As I see it, the key question related to remote assistance apps is: What role do we, as blind people, want this sort of technology to play in our lives? Regardless of one’s individual political views, employment status, amount of tech expertise, level of education, degree of vision loss, etc., I think most would agree that we, as blind people, are best suited to decide how our community can nmost effectively utilize any new technology. I think it is important for us to consider this question, because if we do not, it is likely that other entities will rush to define the role of these technology’s for us. Disability-related agencies, federal legeslators, private businesses, medical professionals, educators, app-developers, blindness organizations, and others may jump in and try to tell us how we should use this technology. Thus it becomes important for us to decide what we, as blind and low vision individuals, do and do not want from the technology.

What, specifically, do we want though? I do not think that we have had a sufficient number of dialogues about this issue to decide. I think this is due in part to the seeming newness of this technology as it relates to blind people. It seems that many folks are yet unfamiliar with the existence of such programs, or if they are aware, they have not yet realized the possible implications of their use. Still others focus on one or two well-known products, and assume that their popularity may be a passing fad. It is true that we have seen many supposed revolutionary technologies come and go over the years. It is fair for us to be cautious before making any sweeping pronouncements about any one tech. My opinion however is that, no matter if any one company, app, or service comes or goes, we are entering a new realm of assistive technology here with the growing availability of these remote assistance type programs. No matter which companies or groups ultimately provide the services, this category of tech will remain, and its impact on our lives as blind people will become more and more apparent. The point being, even if you yourself do not use any remote assistance technologies, you may benefit from taking part in dialogues relating to their use, because the results of such dialogues could prove far-reaching for blind people as a community.

What, then, specifically, might be the issues we consider? I do not pretend to know all the possible ramifications of these technologies, but two large considerations come to mind, and these two will be my focus for the remainder of this article. Some areas I would like us to think about as a community relate to the impact of remote assistance technologies on accessibility advocacy, and their effects on education/training.

Accessibility Advocacy

I have spent a good portion of my adult life advocating for accessibility. I have written dozens of letters, negotiated with business owners, filed bug reports, talked to developers, provided public education, and done countless hours of both paid and unpaid testing. When I advocate for a company or organization to make its tools accessible, I like to think that I am not just working to improve my own experience as a disabled person, but hopefully to improve the experiences of other users as well. However, the results of such efforts are often quite mixed. For every accessibility victory that I have, I encounter dozens more that do not yield any real improvements. Often companies seem unwilling or unable to make any genuine accessibility changes. Other times, changes are made, but when the site/app/product is updated, or the company switches ownership, then accessibility is harmed. And these barriers are frustrating! Not just frustrating, but such barriers often prevent us from getting important work done. As a result, the availability of remote sighted assistance technologies can make a good deal of difference in our lives. For example, if a website is not accessible, we can still utilize it. If a screen does not have a nonvisual interface, we can accomplish the related task. If a printed document is not available in an alternate format, we can read the info it contains. And the positive outcomes of such increased access can be extraordinary! I am excited about that level of access as I am sure many blind people are.

Yet, over time, with consistent use of remote sighted assistant technologies, might we enter a future where we, as individuals and as a community, are no longer advocating as readily for accessibility? If we enter that future, what might the consequences be? For example, I recently had to make a reservation at a hotel I would be staying at for a business trip out of state. I found that the hotel’s online reservation platform was not accessible with my screen reader. Since that hotel was a good fit for my trip, and because the rates were lower on the website than they would be if I called the hotel directly, I fired up my favorite remote assistance app to have a sighted person navigate to the hotel’s website and make the reservation for me. I felt good about my choice because I got the job done. I reserved my hotel room quickly and efficiently, and did so with little inconvenience to anyone else. And after all, is that not the main point? Was I independent? Yes and no. I did not physically make the reservation by myself on my own computer, but I did get the room booked and did not have to ask a coworker to do it or call the hotel directly. And I was able to get the room reserved during the time in my schedule that was most convenient for me. So I would call that an independence win.

However, here is the part that leaves me with some concern. After getting my room reserved, I did not then contact the hotel to explain the accessibility issue I discovered on the booking part of their website. Could I have? Absolutely, but alas, I did not. And if I had, would my advocacy efforts have been weakened by the fact that, one way or another, I had gotten my reservation booked? Although, in an alternate scenario, one where I did not have remote assistance technology available, I might have spent a good deal of effort contacting the company, explaining the issue, and still not gotten it resolved. In the end I may have had to choose a different hotel, book the reservation over the phone but paid more money, or had a colleague reserve the room for me. And I personally like none of those scenarios as well as the one I have now, where the remote assistance app helped me get my room booked. Yet, by doing this, I am insuring that the inaccessible website remains. If I had contacted the company to advocate for accessibility changes, I may not have gotten the needed accessibility, but by not contacting the company, I definitely did not get improved accessibility. Realistically, those of us who use remote assistance technologies are not likely to do both things – use the assistance while also advocating for accessibility. Some of us may, or we may do so in a few cases, but overall there are not enough hours in a day for us to put as much effort into accessibility advocacy when we have gotten the associated tasks done. Even if we do choose to advocate, might our cases be taken less seriously than before because we ultimately got the task done? In a world where businesses do not often understand the need to make their products and services accessible, will we find it even harder to make our cases if we manage to use the products and services? At the very least, there could be implications if we ever wanted to take legal action, because so much of the legal system focuses upon damages and denials of service. Even if we are not the sort of person to pursue an issue through legal channels though, might we find it harder to educate individual companies about the need for accessibility? Because from a business-owner’s perspective, a blind person was still able to use their service, and the subtleties of how or why we were able to do so would likely be lost in the explanation process.

Yet, even if any one, two, or one million websites are never made accessible, how important is that fact if blind people can still do what they need to do? Maybe we will agree that it is not important. That might not be the worst thing, but I am not sure we have decided this as a community yet because, for the most part, such dialogues have not taken place in any large-scale way. My guess is that opinions on this issue will vary widely, and that sort of healthy debate could be a great thing. It is that variance that makes the issue such a crucial one to discuss.

In the case of my hotel website, I may have been able to get my room reserved, but I did nothing to help insure that the next blind person would be able to reserve her room. I have solved my own problem, but in the process, I have bumped the issue along for the next blind person to encounter. True, that next person may also be able to use her own remote sighted assistance app, and the next person and then the next person, but ultimately the issue of the inaccessible website remains. Have we decided, as blind individuals, that this solution is enough? Because there are complexities to consider. Right now, not all the remote sighted assistance technologies are available to every blind person. Sometimes this unavailability is due to financial constraints I e some of the remote assistance tools are quite expensive. Some remote assistance apps are not available in certain geographic regions. Occasionally the technology is not usable due to the blind person having additional disabilities like deaf-blindness. Some of the assistance programs have age requirements. Other times these technologies are not practical due to the lack of availability or usability of the platforms needed to run them. In any case, it is true that such remote assistance solutions are not currently available to everyone who might benefit from them. Even in an ideal future where every single person on earth had unlimited access to an effective remote assistant technology solution at any time of day, would we still consider that our ultimate resolution to the problem? Might we still want the website to be traditionally accessible, meaning that the site be coded in such a way that most common forms of assistive technology could access it? Would we still prefer that the site follow disability best practices and content accessibility guidelines? Especially considering, in the case of my hotel’s website, that the work needed to make the site more traditionally accessible might be minimal. Do we decide that whether we make our hotel reservations via an accessible website or whether we make them via remote assistant technology, the process is irrelevant as long as we get the reservations made?

Taking this quandary one step further, consider that today there are a handful of organizations, schools, and cities who are paying remote assistance companies to provide nonvisual access to anyone who visits their site. Such services could be revolutionary in terms of offering blind people independence and flexibility unlike that which we have seen before. However, what might the possible drawbacks of this approach be? If I, for example, could talk my current town of Tempe Arizona into paying for a remote access subscription that would give me, and other folks in the city, nonvisual access to all that our town has to offer, wouldn’t that be an extraordinary development? Yes and no. I wonder if, after agreeing to spend a good deal of money on remote access subscriptions, would our city then be unwilling to address other accessibility concerns? Would they stop efforts to make their city websites accessible? Might they resist improvements to nonvisual intersection navigability? Might our local university stop scanning textbooks for students because our city offers remote access for all? When our daughter starts preschool in our local district, might they tell us to use remote assistance, rather than provide us with parent materials in alternative formats? Since our daughter too has vision loss, might her school be reluctant to braille her classroom materials because they know our city provides alternatives for accessing print? On the surface, such scenarios may seem unlikely, but are they really so impossible? After all, if the city is paying for a remote assistance service, would they still feel compelled to use resources on other access improvements? Might residents find that it became harder, not easier, to advocate for changes? What happens to other groups who cannot typically access remote assistance technologies, such as those who are deaf-blind, seniors who may not have the needed tech skills, or children who do not meet the companies’ minimum age requirements for service? If a local group of blind people wants to increase access in their town, and their city only has a set amount of money they are willing to spend on improvements, which items should we be asking for? Remote access subscriptions, increased accessibility, or a combination of these? Such questions are not implying that cities/organizations that purchase subscriptions are making poor choices or that they should not obtain these subscriptions. I am simply asking these questions to get folks thinking about possible implications of widespread remote access use. It is possible that none of my proposed scenarios will come true. It is more likely that other scenarios and potential issues will arise that I have not yet thought up. The point here is not to criticize the groups that employ these services, rather to get us all asking questions, starting dialogues, and considering possible outcomes.

Education and Training

I think it is especially important to think about the implications of such technologies on the world of education. Whether we are talking about the education of young blind children in schools, blind students pursuing degrees at universities, or adults new to vision loss who are going through our vocational rehabilitation system, what becomes most important for us to teach to these individuals? How much time and energy aught we put into basic blindness skills, alternative techniques, and independent problem solving? When a student enters Kindergarten, how many resources do we put into adding braille to objects in their classroom, brailing each book they come across, installing access software on their computers and tablets, insisting that the apps/programs their class uses work with this software, adding braille signage to the school building doors, and making sure the child learns to locate parts of their school using their canes? If the answers to those questions seem obvious, then do those answers change if the age of the student changes? Do we feel the same way about using resources if the student is in third grade? Seventh grade, tenth grade, or a college student? Do the answers change if the student is new to vision loss, has multiple disabilities, is a non-native English speaker, or has other unique circumstances? Do the high school and university science labs of the future equip their blind students with braille, large print, and talking measuring tools, or hardware and software to connect them with remoted sighted assistance? Do we do a combination of these things? And if so, when would we expect a student to use which technique, and how might we explain that choice to the student? Moreover, how might we explain the need for that choice to a classroom teacher, a parent, an IEP team, a disabled student service office, a vocational rehabilitation councelor, or an administrator in charge of allocating funding? In our rehab centers and adjustment to blindness training programs, , what skills do we now prioritize teaching? In our Orientation and Mobility or cane travel classes, do we still spend time teaching folks how to observe their surroundings nonvisually, assess where they are, and develop their own set of techniques for deciding how to get where they want to go? Or is the need for problem-solving less important if one learns how to effectively interact with a remote sighted assistant who can provide visual info like reading street signs, describing neighborhood layouts, relaying the color of traffic lights, and warning of potential obstacles ahead? While most folks would agree that a level of basic orientation and mobility skills are essential for staying safe, which skills, specifically, do we see as being the most crucial given the other info now available to us via remote assistance? In our technology classes, which skills would we spend more time on, how to explore and navigate cluttered interfaces, understanding the various features and settings available in our access software programs, or developing a system of interacting effectively with a sighted assistant whom we reach through an app? Again, if the answer is that we do all those things, how much time do we spend on any one and in which contexts? How much of any certain type of training might our rehab and other funding systems actually support? If agencies, schools, and organizations agree to fund remote access subscriptions might they then choose not to fund other types of training or equipment? Does this funding level change if the person resides in a town or region that has its own subscription to a remote access service? What if the school that a student attends has its own subscription, so the student primarily learns using those techniques, but then the student moves to an area without such access? I have my own thoughts about the answers to these questions, but rather than me devising my own responses, I’d like us, as a community, to consider these questions because their answers have the potential to affect us all.

Employment

Employment is often the end-goal of most training and education programs. It is true that blind people have an abysmally high unemployment rate, so almost anything we could do to lower that would be worthwhile, right? Does an increase in remoted sighted assistant technology use actually result in an increase in employment for blind people? Maybe. Maybe not. I suspect we do not have enough data to make a call about that yet. On one hand, remote assistance technologies could enable us to do certain employment tasks more independently and efficiently than ever before. On the other hand, we may find that there are still some technologies that we will need to use autonomously in order to be workforce competitive. Even with remote assistant technologies, we may find that some inaccessible workplace technologies create show-stopping employment barriers for us. When that occurs, we find ourselves back in the realm of needing accessibility advocacy. If we create an education and rehabilitation system that relies heavily upon learning to use remote assistance tech, might we build a future workforce of blind people who are more equipped, or less equip for the world of employment? Only history can tell us for sure one day, but in the meantime, we have to consider what impact our choices about the tools we teach, and the types of access we advocate for, may have on future job seekers.

How much impact has our accessibility advocacy really had on employment rates though? Just a few decades ago, many people believed that assistive technologies would finally level the playing field and revolutionize access to education and employment for people with disabilities. While we have made some strides, we as blind people have not seen much in the way of greater levels of employment. Despite advocacy done by some of the brightest and best minds our community has to offer, we do not yet have nearly the level of universal accessibility that we need to participate as effectively in society as we might like.

Setting Our Priorities

Here in the US, recent legislation has weakened the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and that fact, combined with a history of lost discrimination and accessibility related cases, may not give us as much hope for the future of accessibility advocacy as we might like. We may wish for apps and websites to be accessible, our classrooms to have braille, our books to be available in alternate formats, our intersections to be navigable, our screens to have nonvisual interfaces, our transit information to be readable, and our products to have instructions that we can access, but the reality is that most often this is not the case. Are we making progress? Absolutely. And arguably, the only way we can attempt to insure future progress is not to abandone our advocacy attempts.

Yet, how much effort have we, as disabled people, put into accessibility, non-discrimination, and inclusion already? With the millions of websites, apps, products, documents, and software programs that still remain inaccessible to blind people despite our combined best efforts, might shifting our focus to increased usage of remote sighted assistance technologies be the most practical next step? Maybe it is and maybe it is not. I think we as blind individuals may want to take a hard look at that question. There are a variety of angles to consider and possible outcomes to explore. Ultimately, we may find that the answer is not a binary one. Perhaps we will find that we want a balanced approach, one that includes accessibility advocacy and remote assistance both. That solution might be a wise one. However, the implementation of that balanced approach will take some careful thought and discussion. There are many competing interests at play here, and reasons for promoting any one solution at any one time may vary depending upon the interests of the persons or group promoting them. Additionally, when questions of funding arise, different groups may insist upon different levels of compromise. Before those tough decisions get made, I’d like us to have had a few more dialogues about the above scenarios so that we can be clear about what we want and why we want it.

Moreover, there is a difference between access and accessibility. Access may mean that a person with a disability can ultimately get a thing done. Accessibility, on the other hand, generally means that the object was designed in such a way that a person with a disability can utilize it with little extra help. This is not to say that accessibility inherently makes a person more independent than access does, or that either is superior, it is just to say that the two things are quite different. Remote assistance technologies do get us access to things, but they do not necessarily make those things more accessible. However, in the sense that we are able to participate effectively in the world and do the things that we want to do, both access and accessibility are quite valuable. Even so, when resources are limited, we may find that we as blind people may have to decide which we most prefer, access or accessibility. Then we may need to decide in which circumstances we might prefer one to the other, and how far we might be willing to go to obtain them. When do we stand our ground and insist upon accessibility, and when do we feel confident that access is an acceptable solution?

Final Thoughts

I think this issue is a crucial one for us to consider from various angles. Personally, I have thought about the above issues a lot as a blind woman and as the parent of a low vision child. I have thought it through from the perspective of an employed college-educated person who has had the benefit of some excellent blindness skill training. I like to think of myself as someone who has a healthy balance of technology and basic technique mastery in my life. In short, I love technology, I love braille, I also love the feeling I get from independently walking out in the world with my cane. I am an early adopter of new technologies, and yet I have spent much of my life hiring human readers, drivers, and sighted assistants to get certain jobs done. My life experiences have helped me to understand that not always is the highest-tech solution the best one, nor should it be viewed as a last resort. I say this to give context to my views, not as a way of insisting that my own perspective is the best or most correct. There are doubtless many other perspectives from individuals with other very valid points, and that is why I believe further dialogue is necessary.

Remote assistance technologies are here to stay, and it is up to us as blind people to define what role we want them to play in our lives. These technologies are not the solution to all our problems nor are they the cause of them. They are new tools, and like any tools, they are only as good or bad as the hands that use them. Yet there will be many hands and minds who will want to shape the future of these tools for us. Before a private company, a government agency, a tech developer, a federal legislator, or a field of professionals try to define their role for us, we must come together to ask the hard questions, share our perspectives, and make the tough, but important, decisions about what we want for ourselves, our children, and for our futures.

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Finally, if you prefer Facebook, feel free to connect with Allison there.

Apple Listens, Sometimes, and Advocacy Can Be Worth Doing

November 10, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

When Apple released iOS 11 on Sept. 19, it dealt a nasty surprise in the email inboxes of those of us whom happen to be blind. A change in VoiceOver meant that, everytime we used a feature intended to help us increase our productivity, we ran the risk of deleting emails we wanted to keep. In his Sept. 29 blog post Cupertino, we have a design problem, blind community influencer Jonathan Mosen delivered a thoughtful explanation of the issue and members of the connected, online blind community began a concerted effort asking Apple to reverse its design decision. As explained in Cupertino, thank you for listening, Apple restored reliable email management to its blind customers in iOS 11.1.

On Nov. 8, Marty Schultz, the developer of the wildly popular Blindfold Games, informed the connected, online blind community he would no longer be able to create new games or update existing games due to a new rule Apple imposed on its app developers in an effort to declutter the app store. Blind people immediately began asking Apple for a reversal of the misunderstanding behind the decision. Mosen wrote an open letter to Tim Cook and an online petition was started asking Eddy Cue to review and reverse the company’s decision.

What do these turns of events tell us? First, while by no means perfect, decisionmakers at Apple are listening to and acting upon the accessibility concerns of blind customers. Second, blind people are proactively advocating for their accessibility rights, providing the feedback companies like Apple need to see in order to make the right decisions. Without our advocacy, I am quite confident many blind people would be deleting the wrong emails in iOS 12 and Blindfold Games would cease to exist. There’s a heck of a lot of work that still needs to be done. Let’s encourage each other and keep on fighting the good accessibility fight!

Apple Considering Accessible On-screen Text and Described Videos at Future Events

June 12, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

After watching Apple’s June 5 WWDC keynote and listening to a summary of the event on Jonathan Mosen’s Blind Side Podcast, it dawned on me that we blind people are missing a lot of critical information!

Many of the videos played at Apple’s events lack sufficient dialogue to be comprehensible by a blind person without audio description, and there’s a lot of text displayed through on-screen slides that is never verbally mentioned by the presenters. On the Blind Side podcast, it was necessary for Jonathan’s sighted daughter to describe the videos and read the on-screen text in order for the blind podcasters to understand important details from the keynote, some of which may significantly impact those of us who rely on the company’s built-in accessibility.

On June 7, I decided to write the following note to Apple’s accessibility team asking that audio descriptions of on-screen text and videos be provided moving forward.

Hello Apple Accessibility Team,
While watching the WWDC keynote, I observed there was no way to hear audio descriptions of the on-screen slide content or the cool videos.
I have since learned about crucial accessibility improvements in software such as iOS 11 that were not verbally mentioned but were presented only through slides.
Have I missed something, or does Apple leave out this critical information?
In view of Mr. Cook’s declaration that accessibility is a “human right,” I am asking Apple to provide audio description of slides and videos during its events moving forward.
I look forward to hearing from someone on your team soon.
Thank you for your consideration.
Regards,
Darrell Hilliker
Accessibility Evangelist
BlindAccessJournal.com

I received the following same-day response from someone on the company’s accessibility team.

Hello Darrell,
Thank you for your email.  We appreciate the feedback and will pass this on to the appropriate people for their consideration.
Apple Accessibility

While the response was generic as corporate communications go, I am hopeful that the “appropriate people” will take this feedback from a loyal Apple customer seriously and that, moving forward, we will experience accessible on-screen text and described videos at future Apple events.

If you agree that Apple should, indeed, take care to fully include its customers and developers with disabilities by providing accessible on-screen text, audio description and closed captions, please add your voice to mine. Simply visit Apple’s Accessibility website and email the team.

Categories: accessibility, advocacy

Teaching and Testing iOS App VoiceOver Accessibility Webinar

August 5, 2016 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

This approximately one-hour podcast is an audio recording of a real-world demonstration for following a systematic plan that explores, evaluates and tests iOS apps for accessibility with Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader for blind and low-vision users. The August 3, 2016 webinar was presented by Darrell Hilliker and hosted by the Arizona Technology Access Program. A video, including closed captioning, is also available.

Teaching and Testing iOS App VoiceOver Accessibility Webinar Notes

Introduction

Webinar Purpose: introduce and demonstrate a step-by-step plan that provides a straightforward way for advocates, developers, educators and others to quickly explore, learn and improve the accessibility of all apps in Apple’s iOS ecosystem.

What is a Screen Reader?

  • A form of assistive technology
  • A Software program that turns information shown on a screen of a computer or mobile device into Braille or speech
  • Screen readers and accessibility enable blind people to learn, work and live in a technology-based world alongside sighted people.

VoiceOver

  • One type of screen reader that was created by Apple
  • Has been a built-in feature on all iOS devices since 2010
  • Enables Braille and speech access for users who are unable to see the screen
  • Speaks screen elements aloud or enables them to be displayed in braille

Accessibility

  • True accessibility means that all parts of a platform’s features, benefits, information, policies, procedures, products, responsibilities, rights, services and technologies are developed and implemented in ways that are usable by people with disabilities.
  • VoiceOver and other screen readers work best when apps are deliberately developed in ways that ensure compatibility.
  • Important for blind/VI individuals to be considered during development and included in the testing process.
  • Apple provides developers guidelines for making apps work with VoiceOver.

The Benefits of a Plan for Evaluating and Testing AppAccessibility

  • Advocates may use the plan to identify the accessibility issues they report to developers.
  • Developers may follow the plan to test their apps.
  • Decision makers may incorporate the plan into their user-acceptance testing and other procedures.
  • Educators may use the plan as a framework for evaluating the non-visual accessibility of iOS apps.

Starting VoiceOver

  1. Press the Home button on the iOS device. (round button located on the bottom middle of the screen)
  2. Tap Settings.
  3. Tap General.
  4. Tap Accessibility.
  5. Tap VoiceOver.
  6. Hold the VoiceOver switch and swipe to the right to turn it on.
  7. (Recommended) Hold the Speak Hints switch and swipe to the right to turn it on.
  8. (Optional) Triple tap the screen with three fingers to enable the Screen Curtain. This feature blanks out the screen, resulting in a more realistic environment for nonvisual accessibility testing.

Use Any of These Techniques To Activate VoiceOver Without Sight.

  • Press the Home button three times quickly. (Works if the Triple Click Home option in the iOS device’s accessibility settings is configured to use VoiceOver)
  • Hold down the Home button and ask Siri to “turn on VoiceOver”
  • Connect the iOS device to a computer running iTunes and turn on VoiceOver under the accessibility configuration screen.

The Plan

  1. Open the app to be tested.
  2. Tap the top of the screen with four fingers.
  3. Flick to the right through all elements on the app’s home screen.
    1. Are all controls labeled in a way that makes sense when you listen to VoiceOver without looking at the screen?
    2. Are you able to choose all buttons and other controls by double tapping them as you hear them spoken by VoiceOver?
    3. Does VoiceOver stay focused throughout use or does it become jumpy and read items out of order?
    4. When one or more items in a list is highlighted or selected, does VoiceOver say “selected” or provide any other indication of its status?
    5. If a list typically enables a sighted user to pull down with one finger, is a VoiceOver user able to update the list by swiping down with three fingers?
    6. Are all elements available to VoiceOver or are some items not spoken?
    7. Are there features that require the use of custom gestures that are not available to VoiceOver users?
    8. If visual cues, such as color, are important, does VoiceOver speak this information?
    9. Are all elements presented in a logical order as you move around the screen? If the relationship between elements is important, is it clearly conveyed nonvisually?
    10. Listen for special hints, such as “double tap to play,” spoken after the name of each element. If these hints are never heard, make sure hints are enabled in VoiceOver settings.
    11. If audio is playing, does its volume decrease, or duck down, while VoiceOver is speaking?
    12. Does a two-finger scrub (Z-shaped gesture) activate the escape function of the arrow in the upper-lefthand corner of the screen?
    13. Does the app offer accessibility enhancements such as direct touch, keyboard shortcuts, magic tap or specific support for Braille displays, switches or other forms of assistive technology?
  4. Flick to the left through the same home screen. Make detailed notes of anything that does not seem to function as expected with VoiceOver enabled.
  5. Tap the top of the screen with four fingers.
  6. Flick to the right, one element at a time, and double tap the first item where choosing it should lead to another screen.
  7. Repeat steps 3 through 5 on every screen the app contains, testing and noting any issues found with all elements.

Reporting and Resolving Accessibility Bugs

If you are a developer, using the notes obtained from testing, make all bug fixes necessary to deliver a fully accessible experience for users who rely on VoiceOver. Consider prioritizing the correction of accessibility bugs according to the order suggested in the plan. See the resources at the end of this presentation for details.

If you are reporting accessibility bugs to a developer, consider using the following format:

  • Description: A few concise words explaining the accessibility issue.
  • Steps to reproduce: Write down the exact steps you followed to cause the accessibility bug to happen.
  • Current behavior: Summarize the incorrect or unexpected behavior you are observing.
  • Expected behavior: Summarize the behavior you expect to observe once the accessibility issue has been resolved.
  • App and hardware information: Include a statement concisely providing as much information as possible about the version of the app being tested and the iOS device on which it is running.

Example Bug Report

The following accessibility bug was recently filed with Facebook against an important feature in the company’s iOS app.

Description: The details of event invitations are inaccessible to VoiceOver.

Steps to reproduce:

  1. Make sure VoiceOver is turned on in Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver on the iOS device.
  2. Open the Facebook app.
  3. Open any event invitation.
  4. Tap the top of the screen with four fingers.
  5. Repeatedly flick to the right through the event invitation, pausing after each flick to listen to the information provided by VoiceOver.
  6. Note that important information, such as the event’s date, location, time and other details, are not spoken.

Current behavior: In its current implementation, event invitations are inaccessible and virtually useless to blind people using Facebook’s iOS app.

Expected behavior: Blind Facebook users should be able to access event invitations on terms of equality with their sighted friends.

Facebook version 60.0.0.37.141 is running on an iPhone 6 with iOS version 9.3.3.

Accessibility Testing

  • If you are a developer, check your work using blind alpha testers, followed by a select group of beta testers from the blind community.
  • If you are an advocate, thoroughly test the app according to the plan,then provide detailed feedback to its developer along with your accessibility request.
  • If you are an educator, test the app against this plan and any additional laws, policies or regulations your institution may have in place before recommending its use for your blind students.
  • If you are a decision maker, test the app against this plan and any additional laws, policies or regulations that apply to your agency, company, organization or personal conscience, then do not recommend or purchase the app if it is not accessible. Provide feedback about your decision to the company that owns the app.

Resources

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Picture Imperfect: Our Family Explores Photo Management on iOS

August 2, 2016 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately one hour and 49 minute podcast, Allison, Darrell and baby daughter Allyssa go on an adventure through their photo library, experiencing fun and frustration with accessible and inaccessible iOS apps.

We found Moments by Facebook completely inaccessible with VoiceOver. Please submit feedback to Facebook’s accessibility team.

We were looking for a good way to organize and store our family’s memories, photos and stories, not unlike sighted families the world over. We tried Keepy, on the recommendation of a parenting podcast we like, only to find it almost, but not quite, accessible enough to use. Please send customer feedback to the developer asking for improved VoiceOver accessibility.

On a positive accessibility note, we enjoyed adding descriptions to our photos using TapTapSee and BeSpecular. We appreciate the work the awesome BeSpecular volunteers do to help blind people see.

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Inaccessibility in the Hospital: The Adventures of My Daughter’s Fourth Eye Surgery

May 20, 2016 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

My four-month-old daughter is sleeping, so, in belated celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I thought I would describe our experience with her fourth Glaucoma surgery from an accessibility point of view.

Before I get started, let me say that I think Phoenix Children’s Hospital always treats my daughter very well and provides her with excellent care. I also believe the staff at the hospital do the best they know how to make the experience as accessible and pleasant as possible.

Allison, Allyssa and I arrived at Phoenix Children’s Hospital one hour before Allyssa’s scheduled surgery start time of noon. As we have done with previous surgeries, we contacted the hospital’s Language Services department to request accessible, electronic copies of Allyssa’s discharge instructions and medical records. As has been the case for previous surgeries, we agreed to receive a secured email containing the discharge instructions prior to leaving the hospital, followed by the remaining records tomorrow.

In order to check our daughter in for surgery, I initialed and signed several pieces of paper, including consent, financial responsibility and health insurance documents, without fully reading their contents. The person at the front desk simply provided me a one- or two-sentence summary of each document. There wasn’t enough time to fully read each piece of paper.

A screen in the waiting room displayed the status of Allyssa’s surgery, without any alternative means of independently obtaining the same information.

When our daughter had recovered sufficiently to be discharged, an initial miscommunication almost resulted in our failure to receive the promised accessible instructions. It was difficult for the nurses to understand why we were insisting we could not simply wait until tomorrow to receive our discharge instructions from medical records. Advocacy and awkward conversations with supervisors were required in order to make sure we received the same instructions regularly afforded sighted patients without incident.

In this case, everything turned out fine. No service was denied, Allyssa recovered without incident and we went home with accessible, easy-to-read follow-up care information.

So, you may ask, why am I bothering to write about this incident if, in the scheme of all things inaccessible, this situation enjoyed a happy ending? I am doing so to point out the difference between accommodation and accessibility, and to suggest ways of implementing realistic solutions that value and serve the needs of everyone, including people with disabilities.

As things stand right now, when Phoenix Children’s Hospital receives an accessibility request like ours, it is handled through the Language Services department as an accommodation, similar to situations where a translator is needed in order to help someone who does not understand English. In that framework, my requests for universal accessibility are met with shrugs, because I appear to be asking for nothing less than a perpetual universal translator to automatically convert all printed materials into Braille on the fly. Obviously, I am not requesting such an unrealistic solution, but my inability to successfully communicate this fact to those who may be able to change things for the better means overall accessibility for all patients remains at a standstill.

So, now that we know what’s not wanted, what would represent a better solution that embraces true accessibility, rather than just slapping on another Band-Aid?

I am asking Phoenix Children’s Hospital to make the following changes in order to improve the accessibility of their services for everyone:

  • Insure all the hospital’s websites, including bill pay and patient portal, meet internationally-recognized accessibility standards such as WAI-ARIA and WCAG and undergo regular user-acceptance testing by a diverse group of stakeholders for ongoing accessibility.
  • Insure the secure email system is being operated by a vendor with a deliberate, publicly stated commitment to accessibility.
  • Implement techniques to create or generate all PDF documents in ways that meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
  • Provide accessible display screens and kiosks, or supply similarly proactive alternatives, such as smart phone apps and text messages, that work for everyone, including people with disabilities.
  • Enact clear policies and procedures for positively and proactively handling accessibility requests from employees, patients and the general public as appropriate.
  • Train staff to value accessibility and understand the difference between it and reasonably accommodating a request for a service such as language translation.

Asked to Make Your iOS App Accessible to Blind People? There’s a Plan for that!

May 14, 2016 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Are you a developer who has been asked to make your iOS app accessible to blind people using Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader? Are you uncertain how to respond, why you should care or where you can go to get started? I hope to demystify these questions and encourage you to create and improve your product in ways that empower and include all your customers, even those who can’t see the screens of their smart phones and tablets.

How should I respond to a request for VoiceOver accessibility in my app?

However you choose to respond, I would encourage you not to simply ignore the request. As a professional, you expect a timely response to communications you initiate, so please afford your blind customers that same courtesy when approached. Please consider the following ideas for communicating with users regarding accessibility requests:

  1. Respond to the request right away informing the customer you have received it and you will take steps to follow up promptly.
  2. If you have a bug-tracking or case management system, create a ticket and escalate it as needed in order to get an answer.
  3. If you do not possess the authority to make this strategic decision, please work with your company’s owner or executive leadership to urge them in the right direction. If you do have the necessary authority, please read on for information on how you can open your doors to your blind customers.
  4. If your business has decided to be inclusive to blind people, please respond affirmatively to your customer, utilize the resources provided here and elsewhere online and start working actively with the connected, online blind community.
  5. Regardless of the outcome, please remember to follow up with your customer by providing updates as you are able to release information to the public.

Why should I care?

There are at least four reasons why you should incorporate accessibility into your apps:

  • Accessibility is simply the right thing to do. Would you create an app designed to categorically exclude women, African-Americans, Chinese or any other group of people? If not, then why would you want to exclude blind people or anyone else with a disability? The answer to the accessibility question determines whether or not everyone, including people with disabilities, will be afforded the opportunity to learn, work, enjoy leisure activities or otherwise participate in the benefits your app offers.
  • There is a business case for accessibility.
  • Accessibility can be easy, fun and interesting. In 2015, the White House and several other U.S. government agencies sponsored a hackathon demonstrating and discussing techniques for improving the accessibility of several forms of technology.
  • Accessibility is the law of the land in many parts of the world. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), and numerous other lesser-known laws require accessibility and full inclusion of people with disabilities in activities, education, employment, products, programs and services offered to the public at large. Similar laws are on the books in many other nations. Failure to empower people with disabilities to use your app may result in complaints, lawsuits, loss of business, negative publicity and a poor reputation.

Where can I go to learn more about iOS accessibility and get started with developing my apps in an inclusive manner?

Apple provides an excellent overview of all the accessibility features available on its iOS platform. The Applevis online community hosts Information For Developers On How to Build Accessible iOS and Mac Apps. Finally, a comprehensive, systematic plan has been published to aid developers and others in beta testing and evaluating the accessibility of iOS apps with VoiceOver.

There Should be Compensation and Remediation for the Real Damages Inaccessibility Causes

February 19, 2016 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I just thought I would respond to Chris Hofstader’s excellent article Stop The ADA Trolls.

While I certainly agree we shouldn’t be supporting these accessibility lawsuit trolls, I also do not feel we should be defending companies that have less-than-stellar
accessibility records. If a company has consistently failed to acknowledge accessibility advocacy and act positively to address accessibility concerns,
why shouldn’t we just leave them to be eaten by the wolves?

You see… I believe there are real damages caused by inaccessibility, and I feel we should, actually, consider a more aggressive approach toward companies
that consistently ignore us.

Blind people lose their jobs due to inaccessible software. Blind children miss out on educational opportunities due to inaccessible educational technology used in the classroom. Inaccessible apps in the new sharing economy result in a complete denial of service, which clearly counts as discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act here in the United States and other similar laws around the world. There are so many other inexcusable ways blind people are excluded because of inaccessibility. How can we put a stop to this discrimination?

Here’s how I see all this working:

  1. Blind people have been consistently advocating with a company for full inclusion / equal accessibility, but the advocacy has been completely or substantively ignored.
  2. A case is opened and documented with an accessibility advocacy clearinghouse that tracks and reports accessibility advocacy efforts and their results, or lack of effective action.
  3. A letter is sent to the company’s CEO outlining the concerns and clearly asking for equal accessibility.
  4. One or more blind persons file a lawsuit against the offending company asking for equal accessibility and for serious monetary damages, including not only the inaccessibility itself, but also for the emotional distress / pain and suffering it has caused.
  5. The lawfirm filing the suit subpoenas evidence, including the documentation from the case filed in step 2 and the letter sent in step 3.
  6. The process continues, on and on, with company after company, in a systematic and transparent manner, until we, possibly, achieve real results!

That’s right! I think the lawsuits should most certainly be filed, because companies are wrong to continue excluding us, but I think it should all be done
in a clear, above-board manner.

Accessibility in the New Year: Will You Join Me?

December 31, 2015 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

As another year ends and a new one begins, I find myself asking the question: “Do blind people have more accessibility now?” Sadly, as each year goes by, I keep coming up with the answer “no.”

So, perhaps, I should ask another question: “What do I really want?”

The answer is as simple as its implementation may be quite complex: “I want to be fully included and valued as a human adult with all the rights and responsibilities that status entails.” Put another way: “I don’t want to be left out or set aside because I happen to be blind.”

What does that mean? In as straightforward a way as I can express the sentiment, it means I want to be a productive member of society who is able to support his family and himself without undue, artificial, discriminatory barriers being imposed on me by companies, individuals or organizations. In my admittedly simplified view, if we are granted comprehensive, nonvisual accessibility to information, technology and transportation, the opportunity to enjoy full, first-class citizenship will follow.

There are many examples of the kind of accessibility I believe would allow me to realize the goal of first-class citizenship. How about a top-ten list?

  1. I would like to be able to do my job without having it continuously threatened by the thoughtless implementation of inaccessible technology that does not meet internationally-recognized accessibility standards or vendors’ developer guidelines.
  2. I want to make a cup of coffee in the morning without worrying about the power and brewing lights I can’t see.
  3. I would like to be able to fill out my time sheet on terms of equality with my sighted co-workers.
  4. I want to cook dinner knowing, for certain, that I have the oven set correctly.
  5. I would like to be able to update the apps on my iPhone, confident that each update will be at least as accessible, if not better, than the previous version.
  6. I want to do business with IRS, Social Security and other government agencies in ways that are fully accessible to me without the burden of intervention by third parties.
  7. I would like my accessibility needs to be met in a sustainable manner that works well for everyone, every time, without constantly re-inventing the wheel!
  8. I want to sign documents, exchange correspondence, access my medical records, and do all manner of other similar forms of business, all without the financial cost and loss of privacy that comes along with relying on a sighted reader.
  9. It would be nice to be able to go shopping, either online or at a brick-and-mortar store, independently, with dignity and without the bother of an inaccessible website or the need to have help from a customer service person who couldn’t care less.
  10. When I communicate with agencies, companies, individuals and organizations about accessibility concerns, I would like them to be taken for the serious, human rights issues they actually are, instead of being patted on the head, set aside and told to wait!

These, of course, represent just a drop in the bucket! I know… I want so much. I am high maintenance: a real accessibility diva! How could anyone possibly imagine that a blind person, like myself, might simply want to avail himself of all the same opportunities as sighted people? After all, how do I even manage to get out of bed, go to the bathroom or poor my own orange juice, for Heaven’s sake?

Since I don’t live in the fantasy world I have just described, and there’s no evidence flying unicorns will be discovered anytime soon, what will I resolve to do to make things better?

I will:

  1. Love and support my family and myself in the less-than-accessible world in which we cope daily.
  2. Educate myself more formally about topics relevant to the accessibility and assistive technology industries.
  3. Take at least one action to resist any case of inaccessibility that comes up while striving for balance with the need to prioritize and pick my battles effectively.
  4. Evangelize accessibility and provide agencies, companies, individuals and organizations with effective solutions and resources to move forward in a positive direction.
  5. Provide accessibility and assistive technology testing, training and encouragement in helpful ways that appropriately value my effort, money and time.

So, now, fellow readers, what will you do? Will you join me? In this new year, will you strive to overcome daily by doing all you can, each in your own way, to move accessibility forward? Will you stand up and say, yes! We can, with equal opportunity and accessibility, live the lives we want?

Accessibility: Critical Necessity or Just Another Product Feature?

October 30, 2015 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Can you imagine walking into the coffee shop down the street you have patronized for the past five years one morning only to be shown the door and told you are no longer welcome here? How would you feel if you showed up to work one day only to be informed your services were no longer needed and escorted out of the building? How would a technological equivalent to either of these scenarios feel? When a product or service is inaccessible, do you just chalk it up to a bug or incompatibility, or do you consider yourself excluded from participation on terms of equality with your sighted peers? How many of you are exhausted with the status quo of being invited in from the cold for awhile, only to find the same door has suddenly slammed shut in your face later?

Even among the most accessible companies, I believe there remains a huge disparity between their product-feature approach to accessibility and the comprehensive approach to accessibility we need in order to fully participate in the world around us on terms of equality.

What is the “product feature” approach to accessibility about which I am referring? I believe it is simply the concept that accessibility of a piece of hardware or software for people with disabilities is treated as just one of many product features. If an update to the product breaks this feature, well, that’s just too bad. It’s one of many bugs we’ll get around to fixing according to our complex prioritization scheme and product release cycle. The key point is that, even when it is supposedly built into a product, accessibility is still often treated as a separate, optional capability.

In contrast, employing a comprehensive approach means that a product is developed with accessibility baked in as part of its core functionality. Product design is conducted with the needs of everyone, including people with disabilities, in mind. Product development is conducted in accordance with internationally accepted accessibility industry standards and vendor’s accessibility standards. When a line of code is created or changed, accessibility implications are always considered among the possible implications for users.

So, where do we go from here? While the overall amount of accessibility of technology-based products and services is probably increasing for blind people, it is not consistent. What was accessible yesterday may have just become inaccessible today, and might or might not become accessible again tomorrow. As a blind community, we must not let the current state of affairs stand unchallenged! So, what can we do to make things better? How can we get accessibility elevated from just another nice-to-have product feature to an essential component?

I think it’s time for us to get serious about a Concerted, Multidisciplinary, Organized and Systematic Approach to accessibility advocacy! Let’s form a serious team of paid accessibility advocates who help companies, government agencies and organizations improve their accessibility and assist other advocates in their outreach efforts.

That’s right. The article I wrote over seven years ago about the need for effective approaches to accessibility advocacy still rings true today. What do all of you think? What steps are we willing to take today to work effectively toward a brighter, much more accessible future?

Categories: accessibility, advocacy