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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

iOS 8 Accessibility Call to Action

September 17, 2014 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

iOS 8 hit the street with accessibility bugs that severely impact bluetooth keyboards, Braille support, screen scrolling and other critical areas of the operating system on which blind VoiceOver users rely in order to effectively use iOS devices. A list of The Accessibility Bugs in iOS 8: From Serious To Minor effectively describes the situation on iOS 8 launch day.

Accessibility bugs impact not only people who want to stay current with the latest version of iOS on their existing devices, but they also affect those who have purchased a new iPhone 6, where there is no choice to downgrade the version of iOS.

Let’s help the decisionmakers at Apple understand that we want an equal seat at the Apple table. We want to be able to use our iOS devices on terms of equality with the sighted. Since VoiceOver is built into iOS, that means we need Apple to make correcting accessibility-related bugs a high priority.

How You Can Help

If you are a blind or low-vision iOS user, or you are someone who cares about one, we ask that you please take at least one of the following action steps:

  • If you upgraded to iOS 8 or you bought an iPhone 6 or 6+, email accessibility@apple.com or call Apple’s accessibility team at 1-877-204-3930 and ask for resolution of the accessibility bugs found during the iOS 8 developer beta.
  • If you have not yet upgraded to iOS 8, or you are hesitant to purchase a new iPhone, email accessibility@apple.com or call Apple’s accessibility team at 1-877-204-3930 and explain how your upgrading and purchasing decision is being impacted by new accessibility barriers introduced in iOS 8.
  • Email Tim Cook (tcook@apple.com) or tweet him @tim_cook asking him to direct Apple’s iOS developers to address the accessibility bugs discovered by blind VoiceOver users during the iOS 8 developer beta cycle.
  • Post on Twitter about your iOS 8 accessibility concerns by mentioning AppleAx and including the #apple, #ios8 and #a11y hashtags.

Let’s all take action today to insure a brighter future for blind, deaf-blind and low-vision people in the Apple ecosystem.

Accessibility Report on Foursquare 5.0 for iOS

June 7, 2012 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately 26-minute podcast, Darrell Shandrow demonstrates some of the VoiceOver accessibility concerns found in the latest Foursquare 5.0 iOS app update.

On the heels of its Wednesday update, Foursquare posted a brief article on its support website stating that accessibility is a “top priority,” inviting users to submit problem reports to accessibility@foursquare.com. We urge all blind Foursquare users who rely on VoiceOver to submit a clearly-written accessibility report to Foursquare as soon as possible.

The following accessibility report has been sent to Foursquare’s development team at accessibility@foursquare.com for their consideration.

Hello Foursquare Development Team,

I am writing to thank you for inviting the blind VoiceOver user community to be part of the Foursquare accessibility development process and to report my accessibility concerns with Foursquare 5.0.

There are two primary accessibility issues throughout the new app’s user interface: unlabeled buttons and elements that provide no accessible information. I will demonstrate these by way of a podcast and a step-by-step write-up. It is my hope that the podcast will serve as a live example while the write-up will represent a concise description of the issues.

Please be sure VoiceOver is enabled on your iOS device in Settings > General > Accessibility >VoiceOver before opening Foursquare and following these steps.

Friends Tab

  1. Double tap the Friends tab in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen.
  2. Flick to the right repeatedly through this screen, listening to VoiceOver speak each user interface element.
  3. Listen to VoiceOver read elements such as “button,” “activity btn comment” and “activity btn like.”
  4. Observe that it takes five or six right flicks to read the information about each friend in the new user interface where it used to require just one.
  5. Notice there’s no longer an option to select between “near by” and “world wide” friends. Either this option is no longer available or it is not accessible to VoiceOver users.

Checkin

  1. Tap the top of the Friends screen with four fingers to make sure you are at the top. VoiceOver should say “Logo.”
  2. Flick right once to and double tap the “Global Checkin” button.
  3. Flick right repeatedly through the checkin screen, listening to VoiceOver read each user interface element.
  4. Notice that VoiceOver says “map” before reading the first place on the list. The meaning of this is unclear. Are we missing some important context or information?
  5. Continuing to flick right through the list, listen for an element that says “current location.” Double tapping this element seems to do nothing except repeat “current location.” What is happening with this item?

Explore

  1. Tap the top of the screen with four fingers. VoiceOver should say “Logo.”
  2. Flick to the right repeatedly through this screen, listening to VoiceOver speak each user interface element.
  3. Notice that VoiceOver says “map” before reading the first place on the list. The meaning of this is unclear. Are we missing some important context or information?
  4. Continuing to flick right through the list, listen for an element that says “current location.” Double tapping this element seems to do nothing except repeat “current location.” What is happening with this item?
  5. As you flick to the right, observe several elements where VoiceOver clicks and says nothing.

Please feel free to let me know if I may beta test or be of further assistance in your accessibility efforts.

Regards,
Darrell Shandrow
BlindAccessJournal.com

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).

SoundHound Asked to Roll Back Accessibility Declines and Open the App’s Ears to Blind VoiceOver Users

May 17, 2011 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

This is a collaboration effort between No Eyes Needed and Blind Access Journal, two leaders in blindness advocacy and the mobilization of efforts to improve accessibility in mainstream products, services and resources. Our goal today is to share insight on the current state of accessibility within the popular iOS music identification app, Soundhound. We will give you a brief rundown of Soundhound’s history pertaining to access with Apple’s built-in, screen reading solution, Voiceover, as well as a short audio walkthrough of the application’s interface and inaccessible components from a blindness perspective. The application was once a tremendously beneficial resource with nearly 100% accessibility for Voiceover users. It is our hope with this article and audio demonstration that we can illustrate the decline in access and some areas that the Soundhound development and engineering teams can address as soon as possible. Finish reading SoundHound Asked to Roll Back Accessibility Declines and Open the App’s Ears to Blind VoiceOver Users

Seeking Qualified Blind People to Apply for Bookshare Job Openings

February 15, 2011 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Benetech is looking to fill four Bookshare positions with highly-qualified professionals who know how to lead teams, manage projects, plan products, write grant proposals and much more.

If you’re blind and you believe you’ve got what it takes, please check out these position postings and apply as soon as possible.

Through the employment of a representative number of blind people and others with print-reading disabilities in decision-making positions, we can restore the heart of Bookshare and guide it to a more accessible, responsive future. Let’s all get out there and fill the inboxes of Benetech’s human-resources team with awesome cover letters and resumes that will get their attention and get our people in the door!

Phoenix-Area Blind iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch Users Asked to Fill the Room at Upcoming iOS Developer Group Meeting

January 29, 2011 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The Phoenix iOS Developer Group (PI) will be holding its February meeting on the topic of accessibility. Justin Mann, a blind iPhone user, will be presenting on the use of Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader with several innovative iOS apps that enable business productivity, social-media participation, identification of items in the surrounding environment and much more.

Anybody is welcome to attend. This is an excelent opportunity to show some app developers that accessibility matters and that blind people are using iOS devices in number. Let’s fill the room with as many Phoenix-area blind people and their talking iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches as we possibly can!

The meeting will be held at the University of Advancing Technology located at 2625 West Baseline Road, Tempe, Ariz., from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 2.

We look forward to seeing all of you there.  

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