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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?”

Apple Needs to Refund VoiceOver Users for Inaccessible Apps

August 15, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

By guest writer Michael Hansen.

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

Palringo Poses Problems

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

Accessibility Problems Start With AIM

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

Apple Grants One-Time Refund for Palringo…Grudgingly

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

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

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

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

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

Next Steps Likely Uphill

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

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

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

Accessible Instant Messaging iPhone App Hits the iTunes Store

August 13, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posting Ratings and Reviews in the iTunes Store Using VoiceOver on the Mac Demystified

August 2, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Some blind users of Apple’s built-in VoiceOver Mac OS X screen reader have reported an inability to rate content or post reviews in the iTunes Store. Apple has responded with a solution that has been confirmed to solve the problem effectively.

The trouble is found in the way the ratings widget interacts with VoiceOver, said Nate Doss, a member of Apple’s executive relations team.

“Each review requires that you rate the product you wish to review,” he said. “The normal VoiceOver command for pressing a button does not set the star rating. Instead, you would have to try the “Move Mouse Cursor to VoiceOver Cursor”
command (Control Option Command F5) which would then set the star rating to whatever rating desired.”

Doss said there is a secondary issue involving notification of blind users when the content on a dynamic page has changed.

“To start writing a review, there is a link that you press called ‘Write a Review’ or ‘Be the first to write a review’,” he said. “When you press that link, the review writing tools are revealed within the page, but the application does not notify VoiceOver that the page was changed. This is a common problem with websites that use JavaScript to change the part of a web page instantly without reloading the entire page. From your perspective, there was no change in the page. However, if you were to explore the page, you would discover that there are new elements on the page.”

Doss said Apple’s developers are aware of this issue and are working to fix it in a future update.

Follow these steps to rate a product in the iTunes Store:

  1. Browse to or search for an app, podcast, song or other content in the iTunes Store.
  2. Follow the link to view its page in the store.
  3. Move down to the “Rate this application:” section of the page.
  4. Move to the desired star rating you wish to assign.
  5. Press Control+Option+Command+F5 to move the mouse cursor to the position of the VoiceOver cursor on the desired star rating.
  6. If you explore past the end of the star ratings, you will now see a description of that rating. For instance, “it’s great” will be displayed if you positioned the mouse cursor on the “rate five stars” option. If this description is not present, you have not succeeded. Try again.
  7. Move back to the desired star rating and press the typical Control+Option+Space Bar command to rate the content.
  8. If you explore past the end of the star ratings, you will now see the word “thanks.” This means you have successfully rated the content in the iTunes Store. If you do not see “thanks,” you have not succeeded. Try repeating these steps.

Follow these steps to post a review in the iTunes Store:

  1. Browse to or search for an app, podcast, song or other content in the iTunes Store.
  2. Follow the link to view its page in the store.
  3. Move down to the “Customer Reviews” section of the page.
  4. To start writing a review, follow the link called “Write a Review” or “Be the first to right a review.”
  5. Follow the steps previously described for rating content.
  6. Fill out the title and text body as appropriate.
  7. Move to the Submit button and press the typical Control+Option+Space Bar command to post the review.

We thank Apple for their diligent work in getting to the bottom of this perplexing issue.

Update:

Another solution exists that enables posting of reviews without the extra mouse cursor movement command. It involves changing VoiceOver preferences that affect its cursor tracking behavior everywhere on your system. This supplementary solution may not be the right one for everyone.

Follow these steps to modify VoiceOver preferences so that the mouse cursor always follows the VoiceOver cursor:

  1. Press Control+Option+F8 to open the VoiceOver Utility.
  2. Press Control+Option+Down Arrow to interact with the categories table.
  3. Press n to move to the Navigation category.
  4. Press Control+Option+Up Arrow to stop interacting with the categories table.
  5. Press Control+Option+Right Arrow until you hear “mouse cursor.”
  6. Press Control+Option+Right Arrow once more to move focus to the popup associated with this field. The default setting is “ignore VoiceOver cursor.”
  7. Press Control+Option+Space Bar to open the popup.
  8. Press down arrow until you hear “follows VoiceOver Cursor.”
  9. Press Control+Option+Space Bar to select the option to have the mouse cursor follow the VoiceOver cursor.
  10. Press Command+Q to close the VoiceOver Utility.
  11. Post reviews in the iTunes Store at will.

Pairing the iPhone 4 with the Freedom Pro Bluetooth Keyboard

June 28, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The Freedom Pro Bluetooth keyboard from Freedom Input may be used as an alternative to the touch screen for typing text. This can be particularly helpful for performing text entry tasks such as taking notes and writing e-mail.

As of June 28, Freedom Input has not provided instructions for connecting the keyboard to the iPhone in its knowledge base or manuals. This document provides those instructions in a format that is especially useful for blind people.

The gestures and instructions in this document assume VoiceOver is enabled.

Preparing the Keyboard

Follow these steps to prepare the keyboard for use:

  1. Place the keyboard on a desk or other hard surface and orient it so that the rough plastic end is to the left and the rectangular raised button is to the right.
  2. Press in on the button to release the keyboard and open it to its full size.
  3. Locate the hinge on the top of the keyboard near its middle.
  4. Locate the indented lever to the left of the hinge and pull it to the right using a fingernail. This keeps the keyboard open during use. Move the lever back to the left before folding the keyboard.
  5. Locate the raised, round, vertical battery cover at the far left end of the keyboard.
  6. Pull the top half of the battery cover forward and up until it has been removed.
  7. Insert two AAA batteries flat-end-first.
  8. Replace the battery cover.

Pairing the Keyboard with the iPhone

Follow these steps to pair your keyboard with the iPod Touch or iPhone:

  1. Disconnect the iPhone from the data cable so it is not docked or plugged into the battery charger or computer.
  2. Turn on your iPhone.
  3. Tap the Home button.
  4. Double tap Settings.
  5. Double tap General.
  6. Double tap Bluetooth.
  7. Move to the Bluetooth button and make sure it says “on.” If not, double tap the button to change its status. The iPhone will start searching for available Bluetooth devices.
  8. On the keyboard, locate the two slide switches near the lower left-hand corner.
  9. Move the top switch to the right to select HID (Human Interface Device) mode.
  10. Move the bottom switch to the left to turn on the keyboard. Move it back to the right anytime you won’t be needing to use the keyboard.
  11. Locate a small hole immediately above the two slide switches.
  12. Using a pen or stylus, press and hold the button in the reset hole for four to five seconds. This makes the keyboard discoverable so it can be paired with the phone.
  13. Flick left or right around the Bluetooth screen on the iPhone until you find the Freedom Pro Keyboard button.
  14. Double tap the button to start the pairing process.
  15. Listen carefully to VoiceOver until you hear four numbers. Remember these numbers.
  16. Enter the numbers you heard on the keyboard and press the enter key.
  17. VoiceOver should say the keyboard has been paired. Double tap the OK button.

Now that the keyboard has been paired successfully, you can use it to type in apps such as Mail and Notes. Simply locate Mail or Notes on the Home screen, double tap and start using the Freedom Pro keyboard anywhere you would normally have to use the on-screen keyboard.

Major thanks go to Jon, a technical support representative with Freedom Input, for his patience and thorough assistance with the Bluetooth pairing process on the keyboard.

Please feel free to add a comment to this post if you encounter any problems following these instructions or I can help in any other way.

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

October 3, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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