I’m just back from the CSUN International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in San Diego. That moniker is a mouthful. Just think of it as the largest annual gathering of accessibility geeks and experts, and you’ll have some idea what it’s all about. Spent three days promoting the book, larding more about accessible tech, meeting folks I’ve been following on Twitter, and handling a products that either incorporate support for accessibility, or are designed specifically to provide an accessible alternative.
I also spent some time with fellow podcasters Robert Carter and Allison Hartley of The Tech Doctor Podcast, and Allison and Steve Sherridan of NosillaCast. A segment we recorded about iOS 7.1 changes related to accessibility appears on this week’s NosillaCast. It’s near the end, but hopefully worth the wait, especially since Allison also includes interviews with a few vendors from the CSUN exhibit hall.
Finally, I returned to Austin via Amtrak, starting on Friday night in San Diego, and arriving home on Sunday morning. It was a great trip, and seems to have completely mellowed me out, after a hectic few days at CSUN. I recommend long-haul train travel, especially if you’re not a fan of what air travel has become.
Here’s a picture I snapped from the back of the train, somewhere in Arizona. My sleeper room happened to be in the last car, so I just walked a little way down the hall to get it.
Forgive the sensational headline. I did it on purpose. There! I feel better. Confession is good for the soul.
It seems someone has filed a class action lawsuit against Apple on behalf of visually impaired customers who are unable to use the company’s touch-screen point of sale (POS) devices to enter a debit card PIN number. What I’ve seen of the commentary on this subject today leads me to offer some clarifications for those of you who are neither visually impaired, or familiar with the accessibility options in Apple’s iOS devices. I check both of these boxes.
If you make a card-based purchase (debit or credit) at an Apple Store, the transaction will be processed on a modified iPod Touch, carried by an employee. You’ll be asked to enter your PIN on a touch screen, or to use your finger to sign your name, if you’re using a credit card. Now, all iOS devices, including the iPod Touch, have a number of nifty accessibility features, namely the VoiceOver screen reader, and magnification and invert colors options used by visually impaired (sometimes called partially sighted by those who are not) people. You can turn these features on for any iOS device you, yourself control, even the demo iPads in the Apple Store. Using Accessibility Shortcut, you can do it with a quick triple-click of the Home button. So far as I know, it isn’t possible for Apple employees to enable these options on the locked-down devices they carry.
A couple of pieces I read today compare Apple’s POS systems with those in grocery stores or other retail environments, suggesting that “all” such devices offer tactile buttons, because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires them, and that these buttons solve the problem for blind people who need to enter a PIN. In fact, I’ve used some POS systems that rely on non-tactile buttons, and many more that require the user to navigate a series of menus to choose the kind of transaction, request cash back, and approve the total purchase amount. Positioning, size, and color of these menus varies widely. For me, they’re just difficult to read, and I have been known to judge chain stores based on their card reader technology. For a blind person, these systems create real barriers, tactile buttons notwithstanding. So let’s be clear that the grocery store is not a happy, accessible fairyland, while the Apple Store is a big, blind-hating meanie. The difference is that though I may need assistance confirming the amount of my food purchases, I am often able to enter my PIN number unassisted, even though the menus suck.
Now, if you’re looking for topics to add to your “all outrage, all the time” talk show, I suppose this suit against Apple would be a fun one. I can hear the lawsuit haters revving up their dialing fingers now, ready to hold forth about how this guy probably wants to be paid for his inconvenience by separating Tim Cook from some of those Apple millions. But my intuition, and that’s all I’m relying on here, tells me that’s not what’s going on. Apple has the ability to solve the problem stated in the lawsuit by 1) making it possible for the employee to enable accessibility features like VoiceOver on the POS terminal, and 2) providing earbuds to a customer who doesn’t want the PIN to be broadcast throughout the store. Since I use Invert Colors on my iOS devices, I would like Apple to expose that option, too. Boom! Apple POS systems turn from cold, unfriendly, pieces of…glass back into highly accessible iPod Touches, making them far easier to for customers (and potential disabled employees) to use than my grocery store card reader.
Another reason to keep an eye on this suit, and whether Apple finds a way to diffuse it with adjustments to software, rather than with a tactile button attachment, or some other significant change to its POS hardware, is that iOS devices are popular in all kinds of retail environments. My favorite little Thai place has one, and I find the screen, as rendered by the POS software they use, impossible to read. And it infuriates me to know that the accessibility tools I use every day are right there, behind the POS screen and not available when I pay for my chicken fried rice.
The best outcome of this suit would be that Apple Store customers acquire the ability to complete transactions in an accessible way, and that the need to expose VoiceOver and other features in retail applications would translate into better accessible systems in any environment where customers buy things with mobile devices. That’s positive for anyone concerned about ADA compliance, and provides a competitive advantage for Apple over devices with less built-in accessibility.
For the past few years, I’ve been posting links to music samplers associated with the extravaganza that is the SXSW Music festival, here in Austin. These samplers come from record companies plugging their showcasing bands, NPR stations, and most awesomely, from the nice folks at The (Unofficial) SXSW Torrents site, who scoop up the tracks made available by SXSW itself, and package them in several juicy torrent files. In fact, downloading these torrents has been my late February ritual since 2005. They’re great fun, especially if you’re planning to attend SXSW Music, and wish to know what Moto Passion Pit sounds like before you queue up outside the frat boy bar where they’ll be playing for 50 minutes, come the middle of March.
Here’s the thing though: each year, the number of samplers that consist of downloadable files decreases, and the number of Spotify playlists and other streams increases, making my little collection of links less about music acquisition than is strictly of interest to me. This is to be expected, and I’ll save you my old person rant about how I like files better than streams.
Be that as it may, I’m honoring my commitment to provide links to downloads where I find them. We start with the unofficial torrent, whose proprietors have already warned that SXSW has moved from downloads to streaming, but that they apparently did so in mid-season, so one or two smaller torrents are available.
Watch this post for updates. I tack them onto the end, with the date of the update above each new set of links.
Streams and Playlists
I have been busy working on my book, iOS Access for All: Your Comprehensive Guide to Accessibility for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. Apple has decided to make my life interesting by releasing a new version of iOS. You may have heard about this. I have spent this week committing my thoughts about the new release into words, both written and spoken. You can read my reaction to the new OS, and its implications for accessibility, and you can listen to the Maccessibility Roundtable #44, where I join in a discussion of similar topics.
It sounds extra fancy to say, but I was on the radio in LA last week.
I had the great pleasure of talking to the folks at KPFK’s Access Unlimited about my book, iOS Access for All. It was a lot of fun, and I want to thank Jolie and the crew for their interest. My interview will be archived here for the next 90 days. From this page, you can play it, download it, or subscribe to the Access Unlimited podcast. Look for the July 3rd entry.
What does it mean that an app is “partially” or “mostly” inaccessible? It usually means that VoiceOver reads some of the buttons, menus, or contents of the app, but not all. And not enough so that the a VoiceOver user can work with the app.
I downloaded a recipe app that features some guy’s mug all over it (Strike 1 for the presence of a “celebrity” chef) and discovered that VoiceOver only reads the _amounts_ of ingredients. Not the instructions, not the ingredients themselves, and not even the titles of the individual recipes (strike 2.) The menu buttons, however, are accessible. In many cases, it’s the other way ’round, with buttons unavailable, while content is present.
I’m not grumpin’, just educatin’.
I continue to work feverishly on my book, iOS Access for All. The writing is going well, but there is always more to say than I had thought. All of my initial page counts were low. As I work toward finishing the VoiceOver chapter, I’m looking ahead to the chapters about iOS apps. One will feature all of the Apple-supplied apps, and address their accessibility features and limitations. The second app chapter covers the best tools in all major categories, with an eye on accessibility. So, I will be writing about both the best reading app that happens to have great accessibility, and the best scanner app that can identify the currency in your wallet.
From the beginning, I’ve told people that this book would be interactive. I can review apps all day long, but what I write won’t serve everyone as well as a chapter that comes about with the input of folks in the accessibility community. I’m opening up several social media channels for the book. I will be starting discussions about the apps people like, and why, along with those apps folks think should be avoided. Of course, these social media channels will be promotional tools for the book, too. If you sign up to follow and participate, you will know before anyone when I’ve pressed that Upload button, and when those online stores send the “Approved” email, letting me know the book is available for sale. But honestly, the discussion will be the most fun, and the most useful both to me, and potential readers.
Join the iOS Access for All community:
Of course, I will continue to post about the book on my own pages and feeds, but probably not in as much detail. You’re welcome!
Have I mentioned how excited I am to be working on this project?
Amazon announced yesterday that its Kindle app for iOS had been updated to provide “more accessibility.” In fact, the update (with the inauspicious version number, 3.7) turns a largely inaccessible app into one that VoiceOver screen reader users can rely upon to read, navigate, and manage the contents of a Kindle library. And they did a great job, not merely making the app usable, but opening all Kindle iOS features up to VO.
The fact that blind people have Kindle libraries, given the limited native accessibility of Amazon’s hardware and mobile apps, is testament to the company’s dominant place in book-selling. So, too, are the aggressive efforts made by advocacy organizations for blind users, who have been lobbying Amazon to make this happen for some time. Sure, iOS users have been able to access iBooks since its inception, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook app was born speaking VoiceOver. But Amazon and Kindle retain big dog status, and those of us who have been nursing mistrust of the company must now work out for ourselves whether the proper reaction is joy and gratitude, or a harumphy “it’s about time.”
And despite the world-weary cynicism you might take from the previous paragraph, you should know that the accessible Kindle app is truly a thrilling thing. I have Kindle on my iOS devices, and quickly downloaded the update. When I opened the app with VoiceOver on, I anticipated something great. When I ran my finger across the screen and heard the iPad read book titles and the Kindle menu options (without the “btw” suffix that often indicates marginal accessibility), I was excited. And when I double-tapped to open a book, then did a two-finger swipe to tell VoiceOver to read a page, I became positively giddy.
Accessibility can be like that. You feel as if you have been given the keys to the locked room you’ve always wondered about. To use a closer metaphor, it’s like putting on your first pair of glasses, and suddenly being able to see the blackboard in school. Though I can and have read Kindle books with my eyes, and can and have used VoiceOver to read iBooks and Nook books, I have a strong urge to find a cozy corner, do a two-finger swipe, and luxuriate in the spoken/written word, brought to me by the accessible Kindle app, which gives me access to a library far larger than the one Apple offers.
Putting my news analyst hat back on for a moment, it’s worth reminding those of you who don’t follow this stuff that Amazon’s own hardware is not yet fully accessible, nor is the Kindle Android app. I take this as evidence of the power of those who fought for Kindle accessibility. You see, the people who use screen readers have invested their mobile device dollars in iOS, not Kindles, and not Android phones. Amazon got its priorities right, even if it took them far longer to make this move than many of us would have liked.
It’s an exciting day in accessible publishing. Amazon has finally released an accessible version of its Kindle app for iOS. Frankly, Kindle’s inaccessibility has made that platform easy to ignore, in the community of VoiceOver users. iBooks, Nook, and plenty of other ebook readers offer access via text-to-speech, but neither the Kindle devices, nor Amazon’s apps have done so. Where to buy books then? Anywhere but Amazon. And where to publish books about accessibility? Anywhere but Amazon. Now, though, the playing field is different.
I continue to work on my book about accessibility in Apple’s mobile devices; iOS Access for All. I’ve been asked many times which publishing formats I intended to use, and I’ve always said that Kindle was a low- or no-priority, mostly because the platform hasn’t been accessible. That is both a practical and a political decision on my part. Besides–and nothing Amazon has done today changes this–the Kindle Store imposes high costs on independent publishers. I will be running numbers and continuing to ask potential readers their opinions and platform preferences.
My next post takes a look at how Kindle accessibility feels from a reader’s perspective.
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of being a guest on Robert Carter’s Tech Doctor Podcast. It’s a weekly show focused on technology and blindness. I’ve corresponded with Robert before. Turns out he is a listener to Shelly’s Podcast, and a fellow Texan. It was nice to finally meet him. Along with his co-host, Allison Hartley, Robert and I had a wide-ranging discussion of my career, low vision, the Macintosh/iOS, and the book I’m writing.
I was surprised how much ground we covered. And on reflection, I realize that I’ve never discussed many of these topics before on a podcast, or even with most of my friends and colleagues in the tech world. If you want to know what it was and is like to make a career in tech journalism as a low vision person, give it a listen. I want to thank Robert and Allison for inviting me on. And now I am subscribed to one more really great podcast about technology and blindness. Have I mentioned how many great podcasts you’ll find in that category? I oughtta do a post about that sometime.