Raising the Bar on Apple Accessibility

In 2009 Apple got a pass on blindness accessibility for mobile products because that's what you do for pioneers who kick open new doors for equality. For a first attempt, they were well ahead of the curve, but no one expects a honeymoon to linger six years after the initial thrill. It's time to hold Apple to a higher standard where accessibility for blind consumers is concerned.

Assistive technology vendors have grown immune to customer complaints. That's the only rational explanation for persistent product lines delivering high prices and low performance. It's an old and tired debate, but so far some of the same mainstream companies we use as a measuring stick to thrash the traditional assistive technology industry have themselves lapsed into a state bordering on stagnation.

Is it fair to call Apple an assistive technology vendor? Absolutely. Apple has kept a tight fist over its platform to the exclusion of viable alternatives. In doing so Apple has deemed itself more savvy about accessibility than its competitors, and while it has certainly raised the bar on core functionality, the time has come for Apple to lean on that prowess to smooth out perpetual shortcomings like Braille input and content creation in iOS. (See Jonathan Mosen's Top 10 Wish List for iOS 9.)

Also, consider this excerpt from Chris Hofstader's 2015 predictions:

Sadly, I believe that accessibility on Apple devices will both remain the best thing available for blind users in the mobile space but the accessibility to such will continue to deteriorate. On any institutional sale where accessibility is a requirement, iOS can continue winning the sales in absence of any real competition on accessibility. Hence, there’s no market force pushing Apple to regain its 100% compliance policy, something I think is reflected in both iOS 8.x.x and OS X Yosemite.

So why the stagnant accessibility?

We're well past perceptions of financial obstacles. Even the largest assistive technology company bloated on government funding cannot rival Apple's multi-billion-dollar coffers. That does not give the traditional AT industry an opening to whine about insufficient funding and lack of resources. NV Access pretty much slammed the door on that pathetic excuse only ignorant consumers ever swallowed, so you'll understand if it's hard to look across the field to a Fortune 500 gorilla and feel sympathetic. Apple has the means and knowhow to take something good and make it better.

Perhaps the bigger barrier is a divided house. Dissatisfied customers tend to list all the great things Apple has done before meekly suggesting things the company could do to improve accessibility. There often appears to be a hesitation to inspire the wrath of fanatics who come down hard on dissent, and there's just no need for internal bickering when life is full of higher expectations. Eventually the wonderful new employee is expected to perform better the longer she spends on the job. Personal and professional relationships are supposed to smooth out the longer you get to know each other. Apple is not perfect, and it too must face criticism if it is expected to exceed last year's accomplishments.

There is a distinction between rational and stupid. Calling on Apple to smooth out accessibility kinks on iOS is a rational request. Demanding that all apps on the Apple Store be accessible is plumb stupidity. No one expects an assistive technology company to render perfection. Utopian notions aside, it provides too much of an escape for developers who have an equal responsibility of meeting assistive technology halfway, regardless of the platform.

Apple will never be accused of not appearing to try to accommodate users with disabilities. The references to accessibility in marketing pitches are evident. The Apple Watch did in fact launch with accessible features. On the whole, I would agree with Chris that iOS still provides the most accessible mobile experience, but then, the point here is not to suggest Apple is not a good developer. Rather, it's time we stop congratulating the company for delivering good enough results. It's time to move the needle from good to great. It's time we hold Apple to the same standards we've been holding the traditional assistive technology industry. It's entirely possible Apple will listen.

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