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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?

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?”

Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father of an Evolving Natione!

September 14, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I made this post in my History (HST) 109 course discussion forum in response to the following class discussion question:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Ever seen these words before? Sure you have. They are from the Declaration of Independence and they were written by Thomas Jefferson. Did it ever strike you that these words about “all men” being created equal and having certain rights were written by one of the world’s largest slaveholders? How do we, as Americans, reconcile Jefferson’s words with Jefferson’s deeds? Is it just that TJ is cranking out political rhetoric to stoke a revolution that he hopes will preserve him from bankruptcy? Is he a racist who in using the phrase “all men” knows that his readers know he is excluding what he considers to be lower races (Native Americans, Blacks), or is he simply one of the premier hypocrites in American history? His putative sex life with a slave mistress would probably make even Bill Clinton blush. What’s your take on Jefferson? Which of the above categories does he fall into, or does he fit into “all of the above?” Why do we consider him such a great man?

In some ways, Thomas Jefferson was ahead of his time while in others he was not. On one hand, Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the overall foundation of the United States of America. These developments served to synthesize the works of people like John Locke and Thomas Paine into a real, workable national republic ultimately leading to what we have today as our American society. It seems quite obvious that Thomas Jefferson helped to initiate an evolutionary process of moving toward equal human rights for everyone. It is quite likely he had no clue that his actions would bring out such momentus change in the world. We must take special care to avoid judging our Founding Fathers according to our modern world view.

In the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, during the time in which Thomas Jefferson lived, white males were the only people recognized as full citizens in Western Europe and the American colonies. The man was expected to do the work, own the property and care for his family in all respects. The woman was expected to stay in or near the home, bare and raise children and otherwise support the man’s goals. By and large, she was not expected or permitted to act as an independent individual. For example, American women did not gain such basic human rights as ownership of property and the right to vote until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Native Americans were simply swept aside as white men of European descent mercilessly conquered the New World. It has never been the tradition of any society to recognize the basic human rights of those they wish to subjugate for their own purposes. The rights of African Americans were not considered based on the simple explanation that they were usually bought and sold as property in most of America. Finally, people with disabilities were viewed as being crippled and, thus, incomplete. Their individual needs and desires were never accommodated or considered. Such people were often sheltered by their families, forced to depend on meager charity or outright killed as a means of relieving a burden from the community. In all ways, prior to the late 19th Century, women, minorities and people with disabilities all had one thing in common: they were viewed as less than a complete person by the dominant white male society. further, no laws existed as a means of changing society’s attitude or protecting these groups against persecution.

In most respects, Thomas Jefferson was simply a product of his time. As a farmer and property owner, he was a part of the accepted dominant class of American society. Should we be surprised that he owned slaves? Of course not! Many of his contemporaries also owned numerous slaves. Few white males entertained the possibility that ownership of another human being might be wrong, and the opinions of those from other groups were simply not considered. Should we be shocked when we learn that Jefferson was promiscuous and unfaithful? Absolutely not! Remember, white males dominated. Anytime someone dominates, they hold all the cards. What power did Martha have in the relationship? How would we propose she was going to stop her husband from messing around and having children with other women? He could certainly divorce her if he became unhappy, while it was quite unlikely she would have been able to initiate her own divorce.

Ultimately, we see that the initial intent of the Declaration of Independence was simply freedom from British domination. The rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” applied only to white males in the dominant class of American society. Women, African-Americans, the “Indians”, people with disabilities, and all others were deemed less than full citizens and, thus, not entitled to the same guarantees provided by early American doctrines such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While the Declaration of Independence signifies the beginnings of the United States, the Constitution is the document that gives real staying power to the new nation. It is quite fortunate, however, that our Constitution provides mechanisms permitting the United States to evolve toward a “more perfect union.” The Judiciary interprets the Constitution while the legislative branch can amend the actual Constitution! It is only through these amendment and legislative processes that the slaves were ultimately freed, women were finally granted the right to vote and people with disabilities are finally starting to have a real chance at participating as full American citizens! We can credit Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and the rest of our Founding Fathers for demonstrating the foresight necessary to establish a nation with underlying principles that allow it to evolve away from dominance by one small class of men and toward full inclusion for all its citizens!

Categories: human rights, opinion