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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?”

Ring in the New Year with a Wireless Door Bell

December 23, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Have you ever missed a visit from friends or relatives even though you were home? Have you waited all day for your groceries only to find out the driver classified you as a no-show? If you have experienced annoying issues like these, then the Wireless Door Bell with Waterproof Button from Blind Mice Mart might just come to your rescue.

Karen, Alice and I demonstrate the wireless door bell in an approximately four-minute podcast.

Download, Play or Pause – Wireless Door Bell

Categories: podcast, reviews

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