Blind campaigners pressure Apple to improve accessibility

Disability campaigners are putting pressure on Apple to improve accessibility to apps for blind people. Members of the National Federation of the Blind in the US have approved a resolution to request Apple to create accessibility requirements for developers. They may take their fight to the courts in future, but hope the company will do the right thing instead.

While smartphones and tablets can be enormously helpful for blind or partially sighted people, especially since the advent of Siri and other virtual voices, there’s no law that says they have to be accessible. Back in 2008, the National Federation of the Blind sent a demand letter to Apple which resulted in them adding captions to iTunes and making accessibility more of a priority. There will be an improved zoom and a ‘speak screen’ feature in iOS 8 (as well as hearing aid support for deaf users).

The company also provides developers with guidelines on how to make apps accessible, such as buttons with labels that can be read by Apple’s VoiceOver software. But they don’t require that developers comply, and there is no accessibility ratings system in the iTunes store. Not all developers label their buttons, graphics can make life difficult, and when many brands upgrade their apps, they often don’t update their accessibility settings at the same time – so a previously helpful app could instantly become unusable.

Apps by Uber and Twitter have both been praised by disability advocates, but Netflix and LinkedIn’s have come in for criticism. LinkedIn has now employed an accessibility chief, Jennison Asuncion, who is blind and is working to improve the app. But while some app makers are enlighted, trying to persuade them all individually would be too time-consuming, and Apple making accessibility compulsory would set the standard for the rest of the industry.

Google has also come under fire, because although the company offers training on accessibility implementation and design it doesn’t enforce developer guidelines, either. Chris Maury from Conversant Labs, which makes apps for blind and partially sighted people, told Reuters that in the end, market forces might have more effect than legal threats, saying: ‘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.’

He’s not wrong. There are over 1.1 billion disabled people worldwide and in the UK alone, it’s estimated that over 2 million people have experienced sight loss. I’ll bet a few of them have phones…

Image via  Kārlis Dambrāns’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley