As digital life increasingly moves to the world of smartphones and
tablets, some disabled people with visual, hearing and other
impairments are feeling more left out than ever.
As baby boomers retire and age, the number of people needing help is
multiplying. Many disabled advocates believe federal law requires
that apps be accessible, but courts have not ruled on the issue. Few
disabled want to risk alienating Apple, considered a friend, by
Mobile apps that work well can transform a blind person's life,
reading email on the go or speaking directions to a new restaurant.
Some young blind people no longer feel the need to learn Braille to
read with their fingers, when Siri and other computer voices can do
the reading instead. Captions on videos and special hearing aids
bring hearing impaired into the digital fold.
But when apps don't work, life can grind to a stop. Jonathan Lyens,
a San Francisco city employee, who is legally blind, has a hard time
browsing jobs on professional networking site LinkedIn.
"The app is insane. Buttons aren't labeled. It's difficult to
navigate," said Lyens. When it comes to social media apps, new
problems arise with every release, he said. "I get nervous every
time I hit the update button."
LinkedIn has hired an accessibility chief, Jennison Asuncion, who
himself is blind, and says it is working to improve the app.
Still, advocates of the disabled want the problem solved by the
company at the center of the app world -- Apple. Rival Google Inc,
whose Android operating system drives more phones than Apple, is
also under pressure, but as the creator of the modern smartphone and
a long-time champion for the blind, Apple is feeling the most heat.
Apple hasn't been a steady champion: the National Federation of the
Blind sued it in 2008 over accessibility of iTunes. Apple settled,
agreeing to pay $250,000 and adding captions and other accessibility
improvements to iTunes. Since then it has added more such features
to its iPhone, iPod, iPad and Apple TV products.
Now, Apple and Google both have developer guidelines on how to make
features accessible, such as labeling buttons that can be read by
Apple's VoiceOver software.
But they don't require accessibility, in contrast to other strictly
enforced rules, such as a ban on apps that present crude or
objectionable content. Nor do they offer an accessibility rating
system, which some disabled advocates say would be a big help.
That is where the new debate starts: should the blind return to
court for protection they believe is guaranteed by law, or nudge
their old ally to work harder? Should they pursue app makers, as
some lawyers have, or Apple and Google?
Attorney Daniel Goldstein, who brought the suit against Apple in
2008 as counsel for the National Federation of the Blind, said the
2008 action could provide a model for a suit focused on apps, but
the Federation says no lawsuit is being considered.
At last week's National Federation of the Blind convention, members
approved a resolution to press Apple to create and enforce
accessibility standards. In the halls there was some debate about
whether or when to play hard ball over requirements that apps be
"It's time for Apple to step up or we will take the next step," said
Michael Hingson, board member for the National Association of the
Blind's California chapter, describing litigation as "the only
resort" if Apple did not bring accessibility requirements to the app
To be sure, Apple, Google, Twitter and other technology companies
have increasingly accommodated users with impairments in recent
Many developers are ready to help when they learn there is a
problem, said Chris Maury, whose Conversant Labs builds apps for the
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"I try to lead with the carrot and not the stick. It’s better to
inform developers that accessibility is the right thing to do and an
opportunity to reach a whole new base of users. It shouldn’t just be
about compliance or avoiding legal risks,” he said.
There is a worldwide market of 1.1 billion people with disabilities,
according to research firm Fifth Quadrant Analytics. Nearly 21
million U.S. adults experience vision loss, according to the 2012
National Health Interview Survey, and approximately 28 million have
a hearing impairment, according to the American
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook in a 2013 speech at Auburn University
described people with disabilities "in a struggle to have their
human dignity acknowledged." He said, "They're frequently left in
the shadows of technological advancements that are a source of
empowerment and attainment for others."
The company declined to comment on its accessibility strategy or
whether developers should be required to make apps accessible.
Problems on apps begin with unlabeled buttons, which can't be read
by the machine. New features and graphics can be particularly
challenging, and many companies upgrade an app, before bringing
their accessibility features up to date in a follow-up release. The
result is unexpected, dramatic changes in usability.
Several members of the National Association of the Blind told
Reuters they struggle with apps from Bank of America, TuneIn,
Southwest, Mint and Netflix, among others. Bank of America declined
to comment. Netflix said it had made big strides on captioning and
the others said they were working to improve accessibility.
By contrast, ride service Uber and Twitter, frequently win kudos for
Google Accessibility Engineering Manager Eve Andersson told Reuters
that product teams are increasingly encouraged to consider users
with special needs at the outset.
"We can't stick on accessibility band aids," she said. The company
now offers training on accessibility implementation and design in
Zurich, Mountain View and New York, she added. She declined to
comment on whether Google would require apps be accessible.
Apple also is encouraging developers to include accessibility,
bringing executives from Fleksy, which designed an oversize virtual
keyboard, to describe their experience at the June developers
conference, for instance.
Apple's next version of its phone operating system, iOS 8, will have
a "speak screen" features that reads whatever is on the screen,
improved zoom, and support for hearing aids for hearing impaired
made by companies including ReSound. Apple helped develop the
Howard Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National
Association of the Deaf, wants more. "Any app should be accessible
to everyone," he said.
(Editing by Edwin Chan and Peter Henderson)
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