ShellyBlog Shelly Brisbin's life consists of several long tails. She writes about them here.

October 14, 2015

Hey, I’m Writing for AccessWorld

Filed under: Access and Disability,Announcements,New Media and Tech — Tags: , , , — Shelly Brisbin @ 6:58 AM

I’m very excited to let you know that I’ve signed on as a contributor to the American Foundation for the Blind’s highly-regarded technology magazine, AccessWorld. My beats include tech products for low-vision users, and mobile stuff for both Android and iOS. My first piece is a review of the Revolution 22’, a hybrid consisting of a video magnifier and an Android tablet. It’s so much fun to be doing product reviews again!

February 17, 2015

You’re the Last to Know

Filed under: Access and Disability,Announcements,General Store — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Shelly Brisbin @ 7:48 PM

A bit less than a month ago, I released an updated version of my book, iOS Access for All. The new edition covers iOS 8. I would just love for you to buy, read, and enjoy a copy of the book. I would also love to be able to tell you why my own blog, the one that features an image of the book’s cover there on the sidebar, is the last to get the word. Among other things I never got around to telling any loyal readers who have managed to keep me in their RSS feeds, is that I am now a panelist on a lovely bi-weekly podcast called Maccessibility Roundtable. Also, I released an episode of my own podcast, and have done a bushel of interviews about the book. More are scheduled for this very week.

Does my inattention to what is supposed to be my home on the Internet indicate that I am now among those who believe that Twitter (and possibly Facebook) is all anyone could possibly need in the way of a personal platform? I mean, everyone agrees that RSS is dead, right?

Yes, my own ill-use of this space is connected with the ascendance of other media; ones that have proven results for me, both in terms of feedback on what I write, and jingle in my digital pocket. As much as I love this blog, and making the occasional essays I have penned here, the amount of traffic and comments it gets have been underwhelming.

I refuse to pronounce the blog dead, not so much because I love writing this one, but because I love reading those other people write. But, then again, I just wrote a book, so what do I know? Nobody does that anymore!

July 15, 2014

Mainstream Cheerleaders Defend Apple Accessibility

Filed under: Access and Disability,General Store — Tags: , , , , — Shelly Brisbin @ 1:24 PM

Last week’s kerfuffle about the National Federation of the Blind’s (NFB) resolution asking Apple to make a more vigorous effort to ensure the accessibility of third-party apps accomplished several things: it got lots of mainstream attention for the NFB, and united the Apple-centric press in righteous indignation over perceived defamation of the Cupertino company. What it didn’t do, in mainstream journalism, at least, was facilitate a discussion of what the NFB resolution seeks, or whether it’s reasonable. The controversy has also not demonstrated that the Apple defenders in the press actually know much about the relationship between accessibility support in the OS, and the need for implementation by app developers.

So here’s what happened. NFB members passed a resolution (Word doc) asking Apple to strongly encourage, if not require, that app developers make their software accessible, as a condition of availability in the App Store. And by that, the resolution means that developers should take advantage of accessibility hooks provided in Apple operating systems, so that interfaces and content can be read by the VoiceOver screen reader, or viewed by people with low vision. The “whereas” portion of the NFB resolution actually does a thorough job of describing how apps are rendered inaccessible, how blind consumers often inadvertently purchase inaccessible apps, and how updates sometimes break pre-existing access support. The resolution suggests that since Apple already exercises a lot of control over what gets into the App Store, adding an accessibility requirement is consistent with the company’s highly-regulated approach to app approval.

Next came the Reuters article, which stated (incorrectly) that NFB had sued Apple over accessibility in the past. The author then took a famous Tim Cook quote about Apple’s reasons for championing accessibility out of context. Finally, several leading Apple-focused writers rose as one to defend Cook’s good name, eviscerating the Reuters piece, and praising Apple’s commitment to accessibility in the distant past, in the now, and for all time to come. (And Google sucks, by the way.) This Fortune article does a nice job of fleshing out the story, and linking to more Mac press responses. 

Here’s the thing: lots of folks in the Apple-centric press have a regrettable tendency to cheerlead. Call it advocacy journalism, homerism, or reality distortion field, but it’s a fact of the way many who cover Apple’s every move ply their trade. Whether Fortune’s assertion that they responded at the behest of Apple PR is true or not, the discussion certainly wasn’t very substantive; beginning with the erros in the Reuters article, and winding up with unreserved praise for Apple’s leadership in accessibility, and their altruistic commitment to it. 

A few things were missing:

  • No mainstream article I could find included the opinions of people who use Apple’s accessibility tools, whether affiliated with NFB or not. Newsflash: blind folks are not united on this issue, and they know about what makes an app accessible, and whether and when it’s reasonable to take Apple and developers to task. Marco Arment makes a detailed case for including accessibility support in the app review process.
  • Apple writers were extremely concerned about getting Tim Cook’s words down completely and correctly, but none bothered to link to the resolution that started this beef, never mind exploring what motivated it, or whether what the resolution asks for is reasonable or possible. For their reference, Jonathan Mosen’s response attempts to explain the issue by taking a historical view of tech accessibility, and Apple’s role in its evolution.
  • This isn’t an Apple versus Google story, no matter how much some would like it to be. And if that’s really the story a journalist wants to write, it would be important to address the degree to which Apple controls what goes on in the App Store, and how that makes enforcing access requirements on app developers much more possible in the iOS world than on the Android platform. 

Even in the accessibility community, the Tim Cook quote about why Apple makes its products accessible is held up as a reason to venerate the company. But as proven by the manner of the MacPress response to this little dustup, it’s much easier to cut and paste pretty words from the CEO than it is to take on the challenges and successes of accessibility on a substantive level. Whether you’re a fan of the NFB resolution, or think it goes too far, its real value is as a conversation-churner. Apple understands that conversation is happening, probably far better than most of its journalistic cheerleaders do.

February 26, 2013

Apple Versus Samsung, My Take

Here is a story I wrote for Stabley Times about the latest Samsung lawsuit against Apple. This one is all about a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, the accessibility of iOS.

June 9, 2009

iPhone 3G S Accessibility: What To Expect

I’ll get right to the point: the iPhone 3G S includes several features that should make Apple’s smartphone accessible to many blind and visually impaired people for the first time.

And rejoicing was heard in the land?

We’ll see what we’ll see.

The new phone, debuted at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference, and due for release on June 19, includes a version of Apple’s VoicOver, the screen reader built into Mac OS X. Since we learned at its launch two years ago that the iPhone is an OS X device, lots of accessibility advocates, including me, have suggested that lighting up VoiceOver features in the phone was obviously doable. Now it’s happened.

Since I haven’t seen the phone, I can only report what Apple has told us about 3G S accessibility, and pose some questions. After two years of resisting both the phone’s monthly cost, and lack of accessibility, I’m pretty eager to get one.

First off, let’s get our definitions straight. The iPhone 3G S will become available almost simultaneously with iPhone 3.0, a software release that works on both the new phone and existing iPhones and iPod Touch devices. VoiceOver, and another new feature with accessibility implications, Voice Control, require the iPhone 3G S. Though I haven’t confirmed this with Apple, I’m making an educated guess that the new features require the faster processor in the iPhone 3G S. iPhone 3.0, a free update for existing iPhone owners, and $9.95 for iPod Touch, does not appear to include specific accessibility enhancements. Apple has not announced any new iPod Touch hardware, so you’ll need to buy a phone to get VoiceOver and Voice Control.

Apple’s iPhone vision accessibility page touts VoiceOver as the same screen reader available on its Mac OS X computers. The accessibility toolbox also includes a couple of other options that are familiar to OS X users; zoom and white on black.

Apple uses the term “gesture” to refer to the many ways in which you tap, double-tap, drag, or pinch to use the touch screen. This nomenclature may not be familiar to blind users, for whom a tactile keyboard is the usual means of interacting with a screen reader. With VoiceOver turned on, the iPhone, whose glass screen is completely devoid of tactile reference points, other than a button at the bottom, will speak the names of items over which a finger passes. Open the item with a double-tap, or use other gestures to manipulate it. Another detail for the uninitiated visually impaired user; the iPhone’s home screen does not contain the usual vertical menu of functions, but a grid with square icons representing your applications. Apple’s description touts contextual information provided in VoiceOver, and the freeform ability to interact with the screen reader. In a computer environment, screen readers deliver information in a specific order, as set out by navigation commands and arrow keys. On the iPhone, you can drag your finger to another part of the screen, getting audio feedback as you go. Speech rates and voices are customaizable. The device will even duck other audio, such as iTunes music, when VoiceOver is speaking

Like the innovative pinch gesture that makes it possible to zoom into and out of Web pages on an iPhone, the rotor, new in iPhone 3G S, appears to be an ingenious navigation aid that will make moving around, and keeping your place a lot easier for VoiceOver users. From Apple’s accessibility page: “Turning the rotor— by rotating two fingers on the screen as if you were turning an actual dial — changes the way VoiceOver moves through a document based on a setting you choose.For example, a flick up or down might move through text word by word. But when you choose the “character” setting, each time you flick up or down VoiceOver will move through the text character by character — perfect when you’re proofreading or editing text.”

The iPhone uses a virtual QWERTY keyboard. VoiceOver will speak text as you type it; letter by letter, or as you complete a word. It’s unclear to me how the software assists a blind user in finding virtual keys in the first place. That’s among the first features I’ll be testing.

VoiceOver speaks 21 languages, and Apple says you can activate it without sighted assistance, along with your iPhone.

Let me mention a few non-VoiceOver accessibility upgrades. I make extensive use of what Apple calls “white on black” in Mac OS X. I call it “reverse video”, but that seemed to confuse some of my Twitter followers yesterday. This feature inverts your screen, so that text is light and the video background is dark. This essential (to me) feature is part of iPhone 3G S, along with more flexibility in controlling font sizes, and zoom that is available outside Safari. On a Mac, reverse video can be toggled on and off with a keyboard shortcut (control-option-command-8, if you want to see what it looks like). I hope the iPhone also provides a quick toggle.

There is one major caveat about VoiceOver, and accessibility in general. While Apple has made these tools available, and implemented them in applications it ships with the iPhone, there is no guarantee that app developers will fully support accessibility. An app could, for example, be completely invisible to VoiceOver, or choose not to allow you to adjust its font size. In most cases, small developers will make these choices either because they simply don’t realize that they have visually impaired customers, or because they believe that the time required to implement accessibility is prohibitive. It’s going to be up to iPhone users and potential iPhone users to educate developers. I’m hoping to talk to a few, and learn how much work it is to implement Apple’s new goodies. While advocacy is important, it’s also a good idea to understand what challenges a developer faces in making an app accessible. I’ll let you know what I learn, though it’s safe to say that since the iPhone 3G S has just been announced, learning the ins and outs will take a little while. I intend to be persistent, but patient. And rest assured that each and every app reviewed on my App Store Pundit podcast will be evaluated based on its accessibility.

April 30, 2008

iPhone Accessibility: But Not For Me

Filed under: Access and Disability — Tags: , , , , , , — Shelly Brisbin @ 9:57 AM

I spent last weekend with friends who use their matching iPhones to great effect. Though new in town, they were able to zoom in on (well, close) to my house with Google street view, and find a store we wanted to visit before I could complete my call to directory assistance. They also kept up with emails from home, and conducted searches just because they could, all while holding up their end of the conversation.

Tap, tap, tap.

I’m past the angry part. No iPhone for me. OK. I don’t really feel the need for a Google IV on a constant basis, but every once in awhile, it would be nice, as would a quick look at my email account while bouncing along on the #7 bus, or a recipe onscreen as I work in the kitchen. OK, I want one. So sue me.

But I have to say that this post from Disability Nation about AT&T’s plan to make iPhone accessible to deaf users, really did get my goat. AT&T (and other cell carriers, I assume) offers a data-only plan for deaf or hearing impaired users of its other phones. You get unlimited text-based features, and aren’t charged for a voice plan you can’t use. Right on! It should also be pointed out that cell carriers often subsidize the cost of Mobile Speak, an audio interface for compatible phone. That subsidy is needed by many, because Mobile Speak, low-volume product that it is, costs $300, otherwise.

These are perfect examples of inefficient cost-shifting.Why should a phone carrier subsidize individual purchases of expensive software for disabled users? Why should I go begging for such a subsidy? In the case of the iPhone and accessibility for blind and visually impaired users, where is the native interface, voice or text, that can be adapted to my needs, especially given the capabilities of Apple’s OS? I’d pay for that, or would support grants that would pay for its development. Why leave users completely out of the loop, or rely on carriers to subsidize what hardware vendors should have provided in the first place?

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